The Sounds of Words

Yeats and Maude Gonne by Anne Marie O’Driscoll

Half close your eyelids, loosen your hair,

And dream about the great and their pride;

They have spoken against you everywhere,

But weigh this song with the great and their pride;

I made it out of a mouthful of air,

Their children’s children shall say they have lied.

                 WB Yeats “He Thinks of Those Who Have Spoken Evil of His Beloved”

A by-product of breathing, that mouthful of air, exhalation tracking up through the trachea, plucking the vocal c[h]ords: vowels, consonants, words, words, words.  Say outloud the title of this post  – the sounds of words.  Dissonant, sharp, as unlovely as the scraping of a rake on gravel, echoing  Juliet’s lament as Romeo vacates their marriage bed:

It is the lark that sings so out of tune, 
Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.

Romeo and Juliet by Todd Peterson

Perhaps even more discordant is Gerard Manly Hopkins postlapsarian description of industrialization:

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

   And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

   Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Industrial wasteland matte by Ryan Morgan

Who sez that poetry’s supposed to sound pretty?  

Not Alexander Pope:

But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,

The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar

Nor that barbaric yawper Walt Whitman:

Nor him in the poor house tubercled by rum and the bad disorder.

Nor Ol’ Ez in St. Elizabeth’s ranting:

the drift of lice, teething,

and above it the mouthing of orators,

    the arse-belching of preachers.

Inferno, Canto 8 by Giovanni Stradano

Thanks to its Anglo-Saxon roots, English is well-suited to screech.  However, thanks to its French invaders, our language can also coo.  And don’t forget the ess-cee (sc) words of the Vikings with their skalds singing of skulls and skies and scales.  

English-speaking poets possess quite a synthesizer through which to sample sounds, orchestrating Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and French symphonically (Milton) or piping a simple Saxon tune in tetrameter (Anonymous).

Given global warmification/climatic alternation, the following worry may seem as trivial as the date of Alfred Tennyson’s death, but I wonder, given our beeping visual small screen secondhand exposure to actual sights and sounds, if off-the-cuff eloquence might become as rare as first edition Kafkas.  

In my youth, among my compatriots, having a way with words held sway.  I think of Jake the Snake Williams politely stringing together sentences to a Jehovah’s Witness in Richland Mall, and the fellow smiling, nodding his head, and saying, “Brother, you got you an excellent rap.”  Or Furman Langley lamenting in a Lowcountry gumbo of gullah-echo the pain he be suffering from the “Hurry Curry Casserole Blues.” 

The “like-like” syncopatations of youthful inarticulation and the ubiquitous interrogative lilt of a nation of valley girls’ declarative sentences gives me pause?

I guess it all boils down to a matter of culture.

Bewildered, bewildering primate.  Absinthe.  Circumcision.  Couplets.

Grudges., beliefs.  The war of my childhood, Europe tearing at itself.

Scarification.  Conceptual art.  Classic celebrated scholarly papers

On the Trobriand Islanders, more fiction or poetry than science.

Absorbed or transmitted always invisibly in the air

From a digital Cloud.  Visible and invisible in the funny papers . . . 

from “Culture” by Robert Pinsky

Smugness, a Etymological Analysis of Matt Gaetz’s Maledic[k]tions

If you know anything about language, you can tell immediately that the English adjective smug is of Anglo-Saxon origin. It’s short ­– one syllable – but certainly not sweet.  After all, smug rhymes with ugh, that imitative sound of a cough that over time evolved into an interjection of disgust, the involuntary mouthing you might make when running across roadkill or this photograph.

[As in the case of Melville’s detailed explanations of various aspects of cetology in Moby Dick, an impatient reader is advised to skip the next two paragraphs and pick up the prose following the book image below.]

In English, smug first appeared in the 1550s and meant “trim, neat, spruce, smart.” Smug and smock are the immigrant offspring of Middle Low German smücken, “to dress,” as in “to creep or slip into.” [1]  You smücken into a smock. Smücken itself comes from Low German smuk, which means “pretty,” even though it’s a homophone for the Yiddish word schmuck, which means dick, as in penis or schlong

I can’t speculate on why the Low German word for pretty sounds so ugly or how it morphed into the Yiddish word for penis, which over time came to mean “a contemptible person.” I would hazard to say, however, that smug people are generally schmucks.

Ugh, smug Matt Gaetz is a dick, an entitled asshole[2], the type of insecure Lothario who carves notches in his bedpost (i. e., flashes photos of sexual conquests to acquaintances from his cell phone), the type of scuzzball whose success stems from being the scion of a wealthy shitwad who made a fortune providing hospice care, the type of chuff who frat-boyed his way from prep school to Congress exuding entitlement like a princeling dipped in AxL. Obviously, anyone who behaves with such reckless abandon has never faced any real consequences for his misdeeds. 

And perhaps he’ll sidestep repercussions this time as well. After all, he’s hired Harlan Hill (pictured below) as his spokesperson.

But I wouldn’t bet on it. 

[Full Disclosure: over the years, some have accused me of smugness just because of my relaxed demeanor, because I’m trim, neat, and smart, but they are wrong. I’m just snazzy, that’s all[3]].  

the blogger, circa 1980

[1] etymonline.com

[2] C.f. https://wlm3.com/2017/10/25/my-favorite-vulgarity/

[3] I’d insert a “tongue-in-cheek” emoji here, but they all suck.


Beware of Baphoons: an Extended Definition

painting by Olayinks Taylor-Lewis

More and more I see the bare feet of passengers in SUVs  propped up on dashboards in the posture of the baboon pictured above.

Hurtling along I-81 doing 70-plus, the footloose lefty below fills in her lottery ticket trusting the laws-of-average when it comes to trips per-auto-collision while discounting them when it comes to the odds she’ll claim the Powerball jackpot and spend the rest of her days flying in private jets to luxury boxes to sip mint juleps as she watches the horses run at Pimlico.

Let’s call her foolish.  Certainly, despite her simian posture, baboonish is way too inappropriately pejorative.

The man below, a recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, claims that volcano eruptions, not industrial pollution, are depleting the ozone layer and that “Columbus saved the Indians from themselves.” 

Here’s Rush via on personal responsibility concerning drug abuse: 

If there’s a line of cocaine here, I have to make the choice to go down and sniff it [. . .]. If there were a gun here, it wouldn’t fire itself. I’ve got to reach for it and pull the trigger [. . .] We are rationalizing all this responsibility and all the choices people are making and we’re blaming not them, but society for it. All these Hollywood celebrities say the reason they’re weird and bizarre is because they were abused by their parents. So we’re going to pay for that kind of rehab, too, and we shouldn’t. It’s not our responsibility.

From  the LA Times’:

Radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh was booked on drug charges in Florida on Friday, and his lawyer said Limbaugh had agreed to a deal enabling him to avoid prosecution in the prescription case if he continued treatment for addiction problems and avoided any other run-ins with the law.

Let’s call him a buffoon.  Although crude in his intellectual machinations and often grotesque in his bodily incarnations, Rush is too slick to be called a baboon.


Once, in the picturesque Irish village of Roundstone,  Judy Birdsong, JT Crow, and I had what would have been a delightful noontime meal if a shirtless hirsute man and his morbidly obese wife had not plopped themselves next to us at the luncheon counter. Alas, in this case, no-shirt received service. Although he hadn’t shaved any Arabic numerals in his dorsal fur, he did resemble the fellow below.

I don’t think baboonish is too severe a descriptor.


Once a student of mine mistyped baphoon for baboon, and I thought too myself, “What a great word,”  a cross between a buffoon and a baboon.  It sounds just like what it means. Here’s my definition: a baphoon is a humanoid whose buffoonery crosses crudely into the ass-displaying, territorially aggressive subhuman behavior, a combination of buffoonery and boorishness characterized by passionate overreaction. (Note, baboons don’t possess Second Amendment rights, but baphoons do).  

This illustration should go in the dictionary next to the definition:

Of course, most of us only encounter baboons in zoos, and generally we can avoid buffoons if we avoid certain venues; however, baphoons tend to aggressively invade our territory, so they’re a different matter all together. Whatever you do, don’t try to reason with them.

It Ain’t Orwellian, You Patronizing, Hubris-Bloated Blatherskite

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) gestures toward a crowd of supporters of President Donald Trump gathered outside the U.S. Capitol to protest the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral college victory Jan. 6, 2021 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Some demonstrators later breached security and stormed the Capitol. (Francis Chung/E&E News and Politico via AP Images)

Although by no means do I consider myself an Orwell scholar, I did teach 1984 for a number of years, so I can claim a fairly deep acquaintance with its text, so it irks me when I see or hear the adjective Orwellian employed as a sort of catchphrase to describe any situation that occurs when information brought to light results in negative political consequences.[1]  

For example, take Senator Josh Hawley (R MO) seen above co-opting the Black Power clenched fist from the 60s to show his solidarity with the soon-to-be rioters amassing outside the Capitol last week. Because Hawley spearheaded a Senate faction that challenged electors during the certification process and exacerbated the grievances of the mob that ransacked the Capitol, Simon and Schuster rescinded a contract to publish one of those PR tomes aspiring presidential candidates produce prior to launching their campaigns.  According to Hawley, a private for-profit corporation’s decision to back out of a book deal after its author had played a role in encouraging a violent takeover of the Capitol building “could not be more Orwellian.” He goes on the call the cancelled contract “a direct assault on the First Amendment” as “[t]he Left look[s] to cancel everyone they don’t approve of.”

Actually, there is nothing “Orwellian” about Simon and Schuster’s decision not to publish Hawley’s book. Now, it would have been Orwellian if Simon and Schuster had translated the text into Newspeak and manufactured a fake biography of Hawley’s life or had company spies record Hawley’s every move or had had him seized and transported to a reeducation facility. However, if my First Amendment right meant that a publishing company that earned 184 million dollars in sales last year was obligated to publish my novel Today Oh Boy, I would be one very happy fiction writer.[2]

In fact, the insurrectionists’ subsequent identification by the authorities as commissioners of crimes stemmed not from the omnipresent surveillance of Big Brother but from their own narcissistic need to record themselves in live streams and selfies and to capture their fellow rioters in action to demonstrate how important they all are. To echo William Blake’s phrase from his poem “London,” our “manacles” are “mind-forged” in that we ourselves choose to bind ourselves to devices that track our every movement, our purchases, our internet searches. We are, if not exactly Big Brother, Little Brother and Little Sister, documentarians of our own little lives, seeking fame thorough exposure, amassing “likes” to validate our existence in a culture that reckons worth by numbers.


[1] In fact, I’ve developed an overarching lesson plan in teaching the novel as a whole that you can find here.

[2] Here’s a free sample.

Dagnannit!

hiccuppia

the author being visited by Hiccuppia

I think I’ve mentioned before that the use of vulgar language has grown apace (as they used say) in recent years. At least Richard Nixon spewed his vulgarity and profanity[1] behind closed doors (though the tapes were running). I can’t imagine Jimmy Carter or Ronald Regan saying BULLSHIT when addressing the nation as Trump did in a tweet last October.

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1179422987684077568

I heard in person Beto O’Rourke say “shit” in a stump speech last summer, and on Twitter, oh do Lawd, even such staid conservatives as Bill Kristol and Jennifer Rubin will occasional tweet an obscenity.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m not squeamish. Vulgar language doesn’t offend me.  I’m only pointing out a Late Empire anthropological trend.

For some reason, twenty or so years ago, the Muse of Light Verse, Hiccuppia, descended upon me and whispered the following in my tiny little ears:

 

A Meditation on the Sounds of Indecorous Words

                                                            By Gorgons with long whips pursued

                                                            How naked go the sometime nude!

                                                                                                            Robert Graves

Fellatio is a lovely word,

Operatic in a way:

“The role of Fellatio will be played

By Mr. Richard Cabot Clay.”

 

Sodomy, on the other hand,

Lacks that light Italian ring.

Biblical, confessional.

A cry of pain!  A serpent’s sting.

 

Cunnilingus could be a caliph

Thundering across desert sands,

Seeking long lost treasure troves

Guarded by jinn in distant lands.

 

Fuck, of course, isn’t exotic.

Its harsh cough can cause vexation,

But when a car door smashes your fingers,

it sure beats fornication.

 

 

jerry lee (original)

The idea, obviously, it that vulgar words can be beneficial in certain situations.  I used to encourage my students to use them sparingly, or those Anglo-Saxon monosyllables would lose their magic, wouldn’t be there for them when they need them to express rage or alleviate pain.

I can recall my late wife Miss Birdsong using the f-word only once, and it certainly got my attention. If I recall correctly (and I do), a second person pronoun followed the present tense verb.

On the other extreme, dig this cat who is featured in Sean Dunne’s documentary film American Juggalo.

cusser

Here he is ruminating on his adventures at a Juggalo gathering and how being a Juggalo has made him a better person.  You should hit the link and fast-forward to 5:09 and hear him for yourself because I can’t begin to do justice to his intonations, rhythms, phrasing.

Juggalo: The only way I got that vomit off me was to get to the fuckin raid.

Interviewer: What happened?

Juggalo:  I got fucked up.  I was drinking Caribou Lou on the fuckin carnival rides and fuckin got fucked up. Apparently, I fuckin passed out and then my fuckin homeboy fuckin comes, shows up out of nowhere, and gets me to the fuckin tent, and man, I fuckin fell out in the middle of the fuckin road. I had motherfuckers come ask me how I am. That how bad it was. I was a fuckin spectacle, and shit, I don’t give a fuck because it was fuckin righteous.

I’ll tell you for real about being a Juggalo, man. That shit made me the motherfucker I am today.  Honest to God, man.  If it wasn’t for Jay and [inaudible] that shit wouldn’t be on. I don’t wanna fuckin think about the kind of motherfucker I would be. I grew up a fuckin decent, fuckin good-hearted motherfucker. I’m a fuckin nice person. I can cook like a motherfucker who makes some straight up motherfuckin grub.  Fuckin  chicken fried steak, fuckin collard greens, fuckin mashed potatoes and all that. Fuckin sausage gravy biscuits, fuckin everything, man. I fuckin cook like a motherfucker.

I wanna find me a skinny ass little bitch and make her fat, and then we’ll lose weight together, and then we’ll bond.

[amiable maniac laughter]

But, o my brother, my dear Juggalo, what you gonna scream when you’re entangled in the metal mess of your wrecked car waiting on the Jaws of Life to extricate you?

O gee golly willikers – dagnabbit – ouch – Godfrey Daniels, muthafuckin muthafuckers!

Then again, an vulgarity can be sometimes effective when one is on the verge of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.  Take it away Jeff Tiedrich:

And on that discordant note, I bid you, dear readers, a fond fuckin’ adieu.

 

3103304267_9d27085e77_o


 

[1] Profanity refers to words that offend religion; vulgarity deals with excrement and genitalia.

How to Talk Mac Rebennack’s Oola-Ma-Walla-Malla Argot

 

Here’s a brief glossary of perhaps unfamiliar words and phrases from Mac Rebennack’s autobiography Under a Hoodoo Moon.


ax a musician’s instrument, derived from Mafia lingo, according to Rebennack

B drinkers – uncool bar customers

belly rub – a dance

bomolatchee –  a huge reefer, e.g. a Rasta spliff.

bonnaroo – cool, great, swell

boost, booster – to shoplift; a shoplifter

Chang Moi rocks  – a type of heroin

companfonkilation  – merging two songs and pulsing them with syncopation

Of all the songs on the album, the one that probably gave me the greatest kick was “Litanie des Saints,” my compafonkification of two pieces of music, Louis Gottschalk’s classical “‘Bamboula, Danse des Negres” and the chants I heard at various gris-gris churches over the years.

 

decks of gage – stacks of rolled up joints

desitively – positively, absolutely

dope sick – needing a fix

When we started working on the record, Wayne told me, “I can’t work no more like this.  I’m dope sick.  I need some serious money.”

down-goings – a play on “what’s going down” but in the sense of the process of sinking into further trouble

dry hump – a dance

ear bead – a blind man locating someone’s bodily presence

Ray [Charles] got an ear bead on him [and] knocked Charley on his ass.

Fess – Professor Longhair

Professor Longhair

fessee – the argot of professor Longhair (see propedeller, propelacter, e.g.)

festoon – Professor Longhair’s term for fun

flusturations – incidents that frustrate and fluster

One of the flusturations of this job was that when I delivered something I thought was good, many times Johnny didn’t put it out.

FonkLiterally, “a syncopation on or around a beat.”

 Fonky, fonked– a derivation of funky, but more emphatic, more positive, having the positive vibe associated with fonk.

In the bat of an eye, I’m out on the fonky streets of Fort Worth, smelling rawhide and cowpies, headed for the airport and blue skies.

This approach fonked up the more abstract northern jazz sound.

funksterators – funk creators, musicians that play funk

forever-and-one-year – a long prison sentence

frolic presto – to play music fast

Come on, boys.  Let’s frolic presto.

funky – the music of funk, cool, but less emphatic than fonky.  Rebennack uses both spellings, but fonky seems richer then funk.

get a sick off  –  score narcotics to counteract withdrawal

He needed to get his sick off.  His habit was an oil burner.

goofer dust – a hoodoo concoction

a combination of dirt from a graveyard, gunpowder, and grease from [church] bells; if you throw it into somebody’s eyes, it’ll blind them, and throwing it behind them while they’re walking will put a curse on them.

gris-gris – New Orleans styled voodoo, magic

hang paper – forge checks

hipped – turned on to new information

He hipped him to the fine points of hustling gigs.

in need of a little brain salad surgery – needing to get high

jingle jungle – the business of writing jingles for advertisements

junk-a-dope-a-nals – any intoxicatingy pharmaceutical ending in “nal”

A lot of them went for goofballs: Nembutal, Seconal, tuinal, phenobarbital.  The nals we used to call them – the junk-a-dope-a-nals.

lushing – drinking, doping

making cake – earning money

marble-lized – immortalized

“I think I marble-lized you.” Rebennack to Queen Julia Jackson after dropping her name in a song.

marygeranium– of or relating to marijuana

The truth was, I think my mother unconsciously dug reefer, or at least enjoyed the idea of a marygeranium high.

methodonian – an addict who has transitioned from heroin to methadone

ministrations – technical applications

We were all loaded and Rose was screaming and the doctor was doing his ministrations and it looked like the child was just about to come out when the doctor turned to us, real annoyed, and said, “Man, y’all can’t be smoking and doing all that shit in here, Get out!”

mootahs – reefers

muscle – bouncers

They had their own muscle working in the clubs or out on the street.

oaks and herbs – splendid, irie, as the Jamaicans say

And the second one said, “Everything’s oaks and herbs” – which means everything’s cool because they had smoked lots of herbs.

ofays – white people

The source of their bigotry seemed to be that the West Bank ofays were scared that black guys would take off with their women.

 

one-to-too-long-a-time –  any prison sentence

Now he’s in Angloa Penitentiary doing one to too long a time.

oola-ma-walla-malla language – specialized argot created by cats to confuse squares

‘plexed out – seriously frustrated by

They were truly down characters and kept me from getting ‘plexed out behind all the changes.

pluck – booze

He was a garbage head, a cat who would drink cheap pluck, smoke a bag of reefer, pop all the pills he could pop, then chase it all down with a shot of dope.

propedeller, propelacter – a drum pedal

“John, that ain’t what I want you to play on your foot propedeller.”

John said, “Whaaat?”

Fess said, “You know, I want you to propel the groove with your foot propelacter.”

rum-dums – winos, sots

One night a couple of rum-dums got into a fight and started throwing cans of corn and tomato juice around and busted up the store, making a hell of a gumbo in the process.”

shucker – a pretender

My voice was low and froggy; Shine had a husky voice, too, but was a real singer, not a shucker like me.

slotted – transitioned into a niche

I slotted into a different musical groove.

spew – a drum fadeout

stone – solid, set in stone, unalterable

There was a whole language and lifestyle that went along with being a stone dope fiend.

Leonard just didn’t have the stupidity to become a dope fiend or a weed or pill head; he was never anything but a stone character.

Cutting the album [Gumbo] was a stone kick from first to last.

tighten – to pay back owed money

Tomming – being an Uncle Tom

tragic magic  – heoin addiction

trashers – rock stars who wreck hotel rooms or ballrooms

traumatical – traumatic

All of this was very traumatical for me.  I’ve seen friends’ throats slit, my partner on the morgue table, kids getting turned out – it’s all very heavy, and a lot of it was stuff I’d forgotten until just recently when I went through rehab.

tricknology, tricknologists – the act of conning, fooling someone; con men, scam artists

 

 

 

 

Dr. John’s Dr. Johnston, Mad Props for the Malaprops

 

 

Polonius:  What do you read, my lord?

 Hamlet: Words, words, words.

 

Samuel Johnston in 1755-ish published the first ever dictionary in English.  He accomplished this Herculean feat single-handedly.

Imagine, idle reader, the enormity of the project.  How would you go about collecting words and defining them with no dictionary to consult? Would you start with aardvark and work your way alphabetically to zygote or start with verbs, assembling the gamut, so to speak, from states of being to acts of doing, and once you’d worked your way from is to zapped, would you then turn to the vast realm of nouns?

I ain’t know cause my mind be blown.

In 1994 with the help of a writer named Jack Rummel, Dr. John (nee Mac Rebennack) published an autobiography entitled Under a Hoodoo Moon.

Like Samuel Johnson, Dr. John, who just now died June 6, was a lover of locutions.  Like James Joyce, Mac, the Dr. (also known as the Nite Tripper) found the English language inadequate for his needs.

“So weenybeenyveenyteeny.”   James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake

“Posilutely honorifficatedly medicatedly doctoratedly yours thank you.  Dr. John, from the liner notes of Desitively Bonneroo.

Sam Johnson was an eccentric. Obsessive, compulsive.   Before crossing the threshold of door, he’d go through a series of ritualistic gesticulations and when walking down the street feel compelled to touch every single post he passed.

Mac Rebennack was also an eccentric and was no stranger to wild gyratin-i-ficatin’,  as he might put it.

I’m now reading Under a Hoodoo Moon, and it occurs to me that I could honor these two doctor heroes of mine by doing a little lexicography myself, i.e., by compiling a Dr. John dictionary, a handy go-to reference when you run across a term like junk-a-dope-a-nals  or marygeranium.

The project is underway, and of course, I’ll publish it here, free of charge, despite Dr. Johnson’s oft-quoted observation: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

But, as Dr. John says, “You can’t shut the fonk up.  No, the fonk got a mind of its own.

Caricature of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. — Image by © Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

My Favorite Vulgarity

I can’t believe it’s been five years since Aaron James published Assholes, a Theory, a book that got me in trouble at school when I explained to a star student athlete breaking in the lunch line that he was an “asshole” according to a philosophical treatise I’d just read.

Much to my surprise, although a senior, the violator-of-queue-protocol told his mama, who called the higher-ups demanding an apology, which I refused to offer. “Would she rather I call him despicable?” I asked rhetorically, mentioned he was older than an acquaintance of mine killed in Nam, that I had offered the Anglo-Saxon descriptor in the context of a bone fide academic argument, etc. My bosses, to their credit, demurred. After graduation, I did, however, tell him that I was sorry calling him an asshole had upset him, but he claimed it hadn’t.

Anyway, “asshole” is an example of synecdoche, one of the gadgets poets use in their bag of tricks, a part standing for the whole, illustrated here in Eliot’s famous lines from “Prufrock”:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Synecdoche, a sort of cinematic device, focuses the mind’s eye on concrete images, renders the airy world of words in flashes of substantiality as we atomistically see the part and perceive the whole, our mental cinematographer panning out from the rugged claws to the crab itself and our imaginations morphing the symbol into meaning however our imaginations will.

In explaining this concept to students, I actually use asshole as in a despicable person to illustrate synecdoche because, flash, they immediately get it and tend not to forget it.

I have to admit I love the word [1] – almost a perfect spondee – bam-bam.  Not surprisingly, it comes to English via the Vikings [2], those juvenile delinquents with battle-axes, as one of my history professors described them.  Actually, though, according to Wiktionary.com (my OED doesn’t list asshole), its vulgar usage as a despicable person doesn’t appear until the 1950’s in of all places, the Harvard Advocate 137, March 1954.

Asshole’s popularity as a derisive term is not only evident in its broad usage but also in the number of offshoots it has spawned – assholery, assholic, etc.

But back to James’s book and his ruminations. He writes

Our theory has three main parts.  In interpersonal or cooperative relations, the asshole:

  1.  allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
  2.  does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
  3.  is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

I say, bravo.

Professor James is less successful, however, in classifying assholes because he doesn’t base his division on one principle; therefore, he creates categories that overlap, e.g., the boorish asshole, the smug asshole, the asshole boss, the corporate asshole, the self-aggrandizing asshole.  Obviously, it’s easy to perceive a corporate boss like Donald Trump as being smug, self-aggrandizing, and boorish all in one.

Certainly, he is by far, according to James’s theory, the ass-holiest US president in this and the last century if not the most egregious of all time.

At any rate, I enjoyed James’s book and now that it’s five years old you can probably cop it for pennies on Amazon.


[1] Cognate with Norwegian rasshøl (“asshole”), Swedish arsle (“asshole”). Compare also German Arschloch (“asshole”). Attested from the 1370s, replacing earlier Old English earsþerl (“anus”, literally “arse thirl”). First recorded in Middle English, as ers hole (Glouc. Cath. Manuscript 19. No. I. , dated 1379, cited after OED), ars-hole (Bodleian Ashmole MS. 1396, dated ca. 1400, ed. Robert Von Fleischhacker as Lanfrank’s “Science of Cirurgie”, EETS 102, 1894, cited after OED.) Wikipedia.com

[2] Check out TC Boyle’s “We Are Norsemen” for a primer on Norse assholedom: “The idiot.  The pale, puny, unhardy idiot. A rage came over me at the thought of it – I shoved [the monk] aside and snatched up the book, thick pages, dark characters, the mystery and magic.  Snatched it up, me, a poet, a Norseman, an annihilator, an illiterate.  Snatched it up and and watched the old man’s suffering features as I fed it, page by filthy page, into the fire.  Ha!”

A Failson, Trustafarian, and Jared Kushner Walk into a Bar

I approve of the way James Joyce combined English words as if he were writing in German.

He especially liked fusing adjectives as in “snotgreen” or “chalkscrawled” or “sanguineflowered.”

Dig this: “bluesilver razorshells.”

Unfortunately, if you’re dumbassspeller like me and need your spellchecker to autocorrect, you’re not likely to follow Joyce’s lead because of those goddamn redunderlinings. Undoing them by doublechecking every possible error results in tedious timewasting.

Anyway, sometimes a fusedword will sneak into the language. Today, I learned a new one: failson.

Here’s the Urban Dictionary’s ungrammatical definition:

White, middle-class, male, useless people—who have just enough family context to not be crushed by poverty.

Felix, the failson of the family, goes downstairs at Thanksgiving, briefly mumbles, ‘Hi,’ everyone asks him how community college is going, he mumbles something about a 2.0 average, goes back upstairs with a loaf of bread and some peanut butter, and gets back to gaming and masturbating.

 A failson is not to be confused with a trustafarian, which is gender neutral:

Privileged white kids who subscribe to the hippie lifestyle (because they can) since they have no worries about money, a job etc. They can then devote their lives to eating organic, following Phish, and wearing dreadlocks (no need for job interviews).

 Sarah is a trustafarian. It’s totally evidenced by the combination of her brand new car[1] and nice digs with her “earthy” clothes and dreadlocks.

I suspect failsons tend to hole themselves up in their rooms and suffer from an EmilyDickinsonian/EdgarAllanPoeish pallor whereas the tanned Trustafarian I know who lives on Folly Beach frequently appears in public and is a ubiquitous source of putoff. When he’s not tripping on shrooms, he’s smugly pontificating in a hauterladen voice.

Him, me no dig.

But what about Jared Kushner? What’s the word for him?

How about nepotistickleptocrat?

 

In English, a hybrid language, there’s almost a word for everything.


[1] Or, as Joyce would put it brandnewcar.

 

The Sky Flashes, the Great Sea Yearns

 

I can remember as a boy lying on a pile of leaves I had raked the day before, bored, staring up at the clouds. For whatever reason, years later, I recalled this incident (if you can call it that) and told my mother, “Some of my best memories are of being bored.” For whatever reason, this nonsense delighted her, and over the decades she would sometimes remind me that I had uttered those syllables, as if they embodied some great truth about the human condition.

Balderdash. Poppycock.

Truth be told, my best memories do not include that time our broken-down train sat motionless for four hours somewhere between Edinburg and Inverness nor those hours spent sitting through seemingly interminable high school productions nor glancing up every three minutes at the slow clock ticking in Mrs. Waltrip’s Algebra class (even if she did occasionally enliven things by pointing at integers on the chalk board with her middle finger).

Of course, there’s a distinction to be made between mere boredom (languishing in a waiting room) and ennui, which might be best embodied by John Berryman’s poem “Dream Song 14.”

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,

we ourselves flash and yearn,

and moreover my mother told me as a boy

(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored

means you have no

 

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

Peoples bore me,

literature bores me, especially great literature,

Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes

as bad as achilles,

 

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag

and somehow a dog

has taken itself & its tail considerably away

into mountains or sea or sky, leaving

behind: me, wag.

Ennui is malaise, enduring, beyond the cure of looking up the etymology of “balderdash” (originally a weird mixture of liquids like beer, milk, Nu-Grape soda, etc.) or “poppycock” [which comes from the Dutch pap (soft) and kak (dung), so poppycock = soft-poop].

No for ennui, we need something stronger, maybe a serotonin enhancer, a love affair with Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker, something more substantial than watching PW Pabst’s 1929 masterpiece Diary of a Lost Girl (my morning’s entertainment).

The fact is I wasn’t really bored when I was lying in that pile of leaves looking at the clouds. I was using my imagination. I was happy.