The Shelf Life of Euphemisms

Breughel The Beggars

It’s just a matter of time before officially mandated euphemisms, words like handicapped, for instance, acquire the connotative stench of the word they were chosen to replace, in this case crippled.  The linguist Steven Pinker calls the phenomenon “Euphemism Treadmill.”

Back to ambulatory disabilities. In the Seventies, well-meaning advocates declared the word crippled cruel and decided the word handicapped was more humane. They insisted that handicapped replace crippled, airbrushing, as it were, an unpleasant sound associated with a sad state – withered limbs, club feet, braced legs, thick-souled shoes.1

When you picture a cripple, what do you see?

I see a ratty Victorian coat draped across the shoulders of a stooped Dickensian character with a cane.

Now close your eyes and picture a handicapped person.

For me, he or she is wheelchair bound.  However, unlike crippled, the word handicapped covers a much wider range of maladies; it’s not limited to problematic arms legs or or spines.  Elmer Fudd and Sylvester the Cat have speech handicaps, for example.

The word crippled is crisp, a trochee, the double p-sounds limping. It comes to us from two words of German origin, crypel and crēopel related to the word creep.

Handicapped is less specific, more metamorphic, having originated, not in the distant mists of Anglo-Saxon barbarity but in the 17th Century describing strange pastime called “hand in cap.”

Here’s the OED’s account:

Mid 17th century: from the phrase hand in cap; originally a pastime in which one person claimed an article belonging to another and offered something in exchange, any difference in value being decided by an umpire. All three deposited forfeit money in a cap; the two opponents showed their agreement or disagreement with the valuation by bringing out their hands either full or empty. If both were the same, the umpire took the forfeit money; if not it went to the person who accepted the valuation. The term handicap race was applied (late 18th century) to a horse race in which an umpire decided the weight to be carried by each horse, the owners showing acceptance or dissent in a similar way: hence in the late 19th century handicap came to mean the extra weight given to the superior horse.

Handicapped spread from racetracks to golf courses and enjoys in the arena of sport non-pejorative connotations. It suggests the possibility of success despite a disadvantage, yet it, too, has fallen out of favor. Disabled person is now preferred over handicapped.

Would you rather be crippled or handicapped or disabled? No doubt one day disabled too will fall out of favor for some new attempt to soften the sense of the situation.

This phenomenon of euphemisms falling out of favor has a long history.

Take these deposed onetime legitimate descriptors of levels mental incapability.

Idiot, imbecile, moron.

For example, the blog Medium provides this succinct explanation of what these no longer clinical terms once meant.

1910, the Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Persons adopted three classifications of people we know today as intellectually disabled, as defined by a newly invented way to measure intelligence we now call the IQ test. “Morons” were the most intelligent — they had IQs between 50 and 70. “Imbeciles” with IQs between 25 and 50 were the second level. Those below 25 would remain “idiots.”

Of course, the problem with these terms is that people started insultingly applying them to non-imbeciles, non-idiots, non-morons, so I can see why changing them made some sense. For example, HR McMaster, Trump’s former national security advisor, called his boss “an idiot,” as had White House chief of staff John Kelly, according to the Washington Post. Ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump a “moron.” Although others have called Trump an imbecile – actress Sonam Kapoor, e.g., – I can’t find an example of one of his staff members employing the term. In addition, no one, to my knowledge, has called Trump “retarded,” (though Trump himself used that term to describe his former attorney general Jeff Sessions).

Maybe “mentally incapacitated” will survive. What an ineffective insult that term would make, a nerf insult, not suitable for a staccato attack during a road rage incident. “What the fuck you think you were doing, you fucking mentally incapacitated person, you?”
Although I would rather be handicapped than disabled, I’d prefer to be mentally incapacitated rather than imbecilic. I told my mother once after she chided me for using the word piss, that I’d bring in a jar of urine and a jar of piss, and if she could correctly label which was which, I’d never use the word piss ever again until the day I passed away or croaked.

[1]Yes, “air-brushing sounds” is indeed a mixed-metaphor. Cluck your tongues, you stepchildren of Freud!

The Considerable Talents of Danielle Howle

photo credit: Fleming Moore


In November of 2014, I published a post entitled South Carolina’s Musical Heritage where I imagined The Oxford American had chosen me to curate a cd of songs produced by natives of the Palmetto State.  I complained that a few of the songs in the Oxford Southern Music series were “a bit too archive-y” and that my cd would not suffer from that preciousness.  You could listen to my compilation without reaching for the fast forward button to skip some pocket-comb-and-tissue band from the 1930s inserted into the mix to establish the curator’s erudition.

Here’s what I came up with:

Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’  “Stay”

The Swinging Medallions’ “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love”

The Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See”

Eartha Kitt’s “C’est Bon”

Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts “

James Brown’s “Doing It to Death”

The Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby”

Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again”

The Brotherhood Gospel Singers’ “Mary, Don’t Cry”

The Reverend Gary Davis’s “Prodigal Sun”

Hootie and the Blowfish[1]“Only Want to Be with You”

Julius Cobb’s “Great Big Change in Me”

Uncle Walt’s Band’s “Gimme Some Skin”

Alphonse Mouzon’s “Funky Snakefoot”

Blue Dogs’ “Walter”

Danielle Howle’s “Oh Swear”

Well, last night, I finally got to meet the last name on that list – not last because least but last because youngest.  Danielle Howle is truly a treasure.  She’s blessed with incredible chops; a gift for melody; a soul capable of alchemizing suffering into poignant but not sentimental art; a sharp, dry wit that makes her stage banter funnier than most of the stand-up acts I’ve seen recently.  Oh, yeah, and charisma.  Obviously, you can’t learn charisma, you can’t will charisma, you can’t ask the Lord Almighty to grant thee charisma.  You either got it or you don’t.  And she gots it in containership loads.

See for yourself as she and keyboardist Alex Goyette playing at the Listening Room at Summerville’s Homegrown Brewhouse:



To say I’m a fan is obviously an understatement.  Check her out whenever you can,  Also, her opening act George Alan Fox and Jesse Pritchard were also  killer.


I-and-I backstage with Danielle Photo Credit: Fleming Moore

[1]Not a big fan, but it would be churlish not to include them.

Deepening Shades


The death of friends, or death

Of every brilliant eye

That made a catch in the breath –

Seem but the clouds of the sky

When the horizon fades;

Or a bird’s sleepy cry

Among the deepening shades.

Yeats, “The Tower”


Cast a cold eye,

On Life, on Death.

Horseman, pass by!

Yeats’s Epitaph


Because I’m retiring at the end of this year, I’m often asked if I’m “counting down the days.”

Actually, I’m not.  When this semester ends, I’ll be not teaching at Porter-Gaud for the rest of my life.  Why rush that?

Instead, I’m relishing – or at least trying to relish – the last opportunity of teaching specific content: poems I love, vocabulary lessons I know by heart, characters who are more real to me than many of my acquaintances. For example, my main man from Heart of Darkness Charlie Marlow and I will part company in May. Every spring for thirty years he and I have hung out for two weeks or so. I’ll miss the sound of his voice, what he has to say about truth and lies, of savagery and civilization. Of course, I could look him up next year or the year after, but I know I never will. There’s no need for me to accompany him up the Congo River ever again.

Yesterday I taught Blake for the last time.  We read and discussed the Chimney Sweeper poems, “London,” and “The Poison Tree.” It suits me to be done with those poems; nevertheless, I savored intoning each syllable to the class and afterwards enjoyed exploring the poems’ meanings.

I was angry with my friend;

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.


And I watered it in fears,

Night & morning with my tears:

And I sunned it with smiles,

And with soft deceitful wiles.


And it grew both day and night.

Till it bore an apple bright.

And my foe beheld it shine,

And he knew that it was mine.


And into my garden stole,

When the night had veiled the pole;

In the morning glad I see;

My foe outstretched beneath the tree.


I tried as best I could to convey how these rhythmic, rhyming words capture the toxicity of repression and deceit and how the consciousness of the speaker of the poem is not universal, i.e., that his consciousness is not ours nor ours his.  We talked about existentialism and how the theory of existentialism ties into Wordsworth’s perception that reality arises — is concocted — from “eye, and ear, — both what they half create, /And what perceive.”  I cited Hamlet’s observation that “Nothing is neither good or bad but thinking makes it so” and his claim that he “could be bound in a nutshell” yet think himself “king of infinite space,” that is, if he didn’t have “bad dreams.”

The speaker of “The Poison Tree” is pleased that his foe is dead, so, according to his reckoning, “God’s in His heaven, and all’s right with the world.” After all, the speaker has invested a lot of energy cultivating the poison apple.  His joy in his neighbor’s demise contradicts traditional religious and secular moral teaching and perhaps is off-putting to many readers; nevertheless, it makes sense that he expresses his thoughts in jaunty, happy rhythms.

After all, as Pope says, “The sound must seem an echo of the sense.”

In these dwindling last weeks, I’ll also bid adieu to Blake, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Conrad, Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, and Auden as they sing their swan songs. After that, I’ll be free to “embrace the trivial days and ram them with the sun,” to paddle out in glassy surf while my colleagues are taking roll or telling some boy to tuck in his shirt.   I’ll be free to read what I choose, to make some new literary friends.  It’s about time I got acquainted with Swann and his daddy Marcel Proust.

Until then, I hope to savor each and every class period rather than looking ahead and counting them down like Advent calendar squares, or a prison sentence, or the way I count down the essays left to be graded or the report card comments left to be composed.

Yes, I am looking forward to not grading essays and writing report card comments. I have three sets left to finish before 8:00 a.m. Wednesday.

An Old Manuscript Resurfaces

Last night I was talking to my wife Caroline about the experience of having written a pre-word-processing novel in my late twenties. I told her how the idea of the story had come to me and how the narrative had almost effortlessly unspooled from my imagination.

It was 1980, and I had managed to get an agent, who shopped it around, but to no avail.  Eventually the agent mailed the manuscript back with a letter from Viking claiming I had talent, but the book was a downer. Perhaps to show me she was no slacker, the agent mentioned that she had received other, less-charitable rejections.

I casually mentioned to Caroline that I still had the manuscript somewhere in my study, which surprised her, and she asked me to go upstairs to see if I could find it.  I eventually located it in the back of a file cabinet.

I hadn’t looked at it in thirty-five years and expected to be totally embarrassed, but as I started reading, I thought to myself, “Some of this ain’t half bad.”

For example, I think the excerpt below captures fairly well that awful feeling when something you’ve done has seemingly ruined your life forever.

In the wee hours, the narrator, fifteen-year-old Kenny Stevenson, has been deposited home by the police after his girlfriend nearly drowned in a hot tub during an unsupervised party.  He has awakened in his room the next afternoon.  His hectoring mother, a difficult woman even on a good day, has just burst in and denigrated him in raw angry hurtful language.  Overwhelmed, broken, in considerable physical pain, he screams an obscenity back at her.

I couldn’t believe I had said it, but I had — had hollered the words at pointblank range, — and as soon as the they hit her, she started screaming and crying and punching me all over my face with her fists. I was getting ready to start crying, too, not because the punches hurt any more than my body already hurt, but because there was nothing left to do. Finally, she quit and ran out of the room sobbing, slamming the door real hard.

I could hear the sobbing disappearing down the hall, so I scrunched a pillow over my head so I couldn’t hear or see.  It felt like my body was getting ready to out-sob hers, and I was gonna let it.  I was looking forward to letting it out.  I moved the pillow out of the way, opened my mouth, ready to gush tears all over the place, but the only thing that came out was a sort of foghorn honk.  It sounded horrible, like a rhinoceros call or something, like an eighty-year-old Tarzan’s pathetic holler.  I honked it four times, and with each honk, I felt the rhinos stampeding in my head, trampling down everything that used to be.  It was like everything that used to be had been washed away in vomit.  Now I was actually trying to cry like a baby, but my body wouldn’t let me. All I could do is let out a jungle honk, and then there was silence, except for the sound of my panting.

Even though the air-conditioner was on, I must have left the window open to throw up sometime during the night.  Eventually, my panting slackened, which turned into silence, and silence gave way to cars swishing in the street.  Or was that the wind rustling through the trees? I made myself get up.  It wasn’t easy, but I did it and went over to the window and squatted down beside it. I pulled the shade back, and the light stabbed my eyes. For a second or two, yellow blobs  floated right in front of me, but as my eyes gradually got used to the light, the blobs faded away, and I could see the world outside tending to business as usual – people in cars going somewhere, Mrs. Ayers walking down to her mailbox, Hambone in the shade shooing flies with his tail.

I would’ve traded places with any of them – even Mrs. Ayers. At least their lives, no matter how boring, were the same as they had been yesterday.  Mine had changed, changed for good, and all of a sudden, I knew what I had to do.

I had to split.


Protestant Carnival


Alas, even though Folly Beach is the Edge of America, even though it’s the mostest bohemianest spot in South Carolina, it is, nevertheless, Protestant.  You gotta have Lent to have a good carnival.  At a Protestant Mardi Gras parade, like on Folly Beach, they ain’t no nudity, so the closest thang we got what I’d call Dionysian is the purple headed chick on stilts on this here video.

All the same Bontemps, y’all.


The Ballad of Old Buck Roberts



For years and years he lived right here

in a tent on the edge of Folly.

He brewed his beer and wrote his poems

in the shade of a stunted loblolly.


He played at working construction,

could drive a nail I guess,

but what Buck was really good at

was downing his Inverness.


He’d have a drop in the morning,

he’d have a drop at noon,

he’d have a drop at midnight,

‘neath the light of a winter moon.


The cold on Folly ain’t that bad

(unless you stay in a tent),

but Buck would hum all through the night,

shivering but still content,


content because his poems would clack

from that old Underwood,

clack-clack-clacking, like a woodpecker,

on the edge of the stunted wood.


The VA doctors warned him

to change his lifestyle soon,

but Buck was a stubborn cuss.

He loved the light of the moon.


They found him dead inside a shed

on the side of Folly Road,

and in his hand he held a poem,

the last one he ever wrote:


            Drunk me some wine with Jesus [it read]

            At this here wedding in Galilee.

            He saved the bestest for second

            And provided it all for free.


            So I quit my job on the shrimp boat

            To follow Him eternally,

            No longer bound by them blue laws

            Enforced by the Pharisee.


            And we had us some real good times

            Till them Pharisees done Him in.

            Ain’t got no use for the religious right

            After I seen what they done to Him.


            Then when Saul Paul stole the show

            I sort of drifted away.

            Cause he never quite did understood

            What Jesus was trying to say.


            Paul was like a Pharisee,

            Cussing this, cussing that,

            Giving the wimmins a real hard time,

            Gay bashing and all like that.


            So I stay at home most nights now

            Trying to do some good,

            Offering beggars a little snort

            Whilst praying for a Robin Hood.


            Drunk me some wine with Jesus,

            It was the bestest day I ever seen.

            Drunk me some wine with Jesus,

            Partying with the Nazarene.


I can think of worse things

to have in your hand when dead

across the bridge on Folly Road

inside an old tool shed.



Different Planets

Someone who goes by the appellation “arsidubu” has finally answered the graphical question, “What do you get when you cross Norman Rockwell with Edward Hopper?”

Ta Da!

Certainly, the two artists share a comic book illustrator aesthetic in their depiction of the life in mid-20th-Century America, and both cast their paintings in similar venues; however, their denizens inhabit different planets – at least when it comes to mood and human interaction.

Paying the Bills


Room in New York

In Rockwell, a Protestant deity smiles upon a beloved middle class who in turn smile and wink their way from cradle to grave.  Even coal miners seem bemused by their lot in life.

Conversely, in Hopper’s world God is dead, and as poet Victor Enyutin has observed, the people’s shadows seem more alive than they do.


Here’s Enyutin’s take on the painting People in the Sun:

People depicted here by Hopper cannot just relax in the sun. Instead, they project to the situation of taking sun their rigidities and stresses, and their business oriented energies over-stimulated by science fiction – poetry of entrepreneurial world. In their solemnly frozen poses we feel their unconscious intention of taking trip… to the sun – we see that they are as though physically moving/traveling towards the sun while sitting in a kind of starship (may be, with a dream of starting a business there of getting some of the sun’s “natural resources”).

Both artists hailed from New York and enjoyed prosperous childhoods, though Edward Hopper grew up in a strict Baptist household, i.e., in a fallen world.  Both embarked upon their careers early, worked for magazines, employed their wives as models, and enjoyed public affirmation.

The first Mrs. Rockwell

Mrs. Hopper

On the other hand – and given the mood of their paintings/illustrations, the following statement seems profoundly counterintuitive – Hopper’s biography seems the saner of the two.  Thrice married, Rockwell’s second wife spent time in a psychiatric hospital and Rockwell himself received psychiatric care from Eric Erikson, who once told Rockwell that “you paint your happiness but don’t live it.”

Though much more restless and slower to gain recognition than Rockwell, Hopper enjoyed 44 years of a happy marriage, despite possessing the temperament of a curmudgeon.

Given the sunshine and shadow of their paintings, guess which one of these artists voted for Roosevelt and which for Hoover.

That’s right.  It’s a trick question.  The lefty painted this clown:

And the righty painted this one:

Perhaps we have forgotten that traditionally conservatives like Swift, Pope, and Johnson have been the world-weary gloomsters and liberals the naive optimists.  Whatever the case, I feel much more at home in Edward Hopper’s world.