Monday, September 16, 2019

Epithets


Although I’m an English Major, I seldom correct other people’s grammar. That would be rude.

Nevertheless, certain vocabulary errors are so grating I feel like I’m providing a public service by sharing my linguistic knowledge. For example, a “tenant” is a person who occupies property rented from a landlord. A “tenet” is an important belief, such as the fundamental articles of faith embraced by a religion or philosophy. Although both terms are descendants of the Latin word for "hold," nowadays "tenant" and "tenet" have nothing in common besides four Scrabble tiles. And the fact that too many people confuse them.


Here’s another pair of English words that are often confused:  An “epitaph” is what you inscribe on someone’s tombstone. An “epithet” is a descriptive word or phrase intended to capture the character of a person or thing. You don’t need to lift weights and then go to a graveyard in order to "hurl epithets" at someone. Unless you really meant to hurl epitaphs.

Epithets have been an important part of literature since classical times. Greek authors teased Homer about his habit of referring to every body of water as the “wine-dark sea.” The goddess of wisdom was “Bright-Eyed Athena.” Historians characterized various rulers with shorthand epithets like “Ivan the Great,” “Ivan the Terrible,” or "Vlad the Impaler."

In an age when storytelling was primarily oral, epithets helped speakers and listeners keep track of the cast of characters. Epithets also reinforced the connections between particular themes, while emphasizing contrasts with other characters or ideas. Like leitmotifs in music. Or coloured jerseys in sports.

In our era of digitized memes, epithets continue to create powerful mental connections. Donald Trump has successfully linked his perceived enemies to colourful phrases, such as the “failing New York Times,” “Crooked Hillary,” or the “Amazon Washington Post.” At least in the minds of certain Trump followers.  

During the 1980s, the late great magazine Spy demonstrated a particular gift for generating epithets. For example, Spy repeatedly referred to one unfortunate Vogue editor as "bosomy dirty book writer Shirley Lord." Most famously, the Donald still can’t shake Spy's label as “short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump.”


In November 2015, my doctor diagnosed me with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. My symptoms were triggered by recent events, but they were rooted in trauma that occurred thirty years ago. Unfortunately, my employers thoroughly bungled their response to my disability. 

My distress significantly increased after my employers hired a Seattle private investigator. He was supposed to look into my discrimination complaint challenging homophobic bias in the workplace. This investigator was the only lawyer dealing directly with me. He had the last clear chance to avert disaster. Instead, he lied to me, accommodated my employers' prejudices, and issued a report that clumsily attacked my character.

In response to both my improved mental health and to important developments in the litigation, recently I've posted various essays about my experiences as a participant in the legal system. I realize the law is not everybody’s cup of tea. For most nonlawyers, legal topics are boring and confusing. At best. You sane folks should click on the link to a blog post about brains, my children, or showtunes.

Nevertheless, I keep trying to figure out how to make my law-related writing clearer and more memorable. For example, after months of pondering, I’ve settled on an epithet for the Ogden Murphy Wallace firm and its partner Patrick Pearce, the supposedly “independent” private investigators I'm suing:  Seattle’s sleaziest bottom-feeding law firm®.”


Words have power. Particularly people’s names.

One of my favourite authors is Ursula K. Le Guin, who died last year at age 88. She was a pioneering feminist and science fiction writer, as well as a awe-inspiring wordsmith and writing teacher. 

The first volume of Le Guin’s classic fantasy series, A Wizard of Earthsea, remains one of the fundamental touchstones of my worldview. It’s been almost five decades since I first encountered her boy-magician protagonist Ged, who was generally known by the nickname “Sparrowhawk.” Over the years, Le Guin continued the saga in five more novels and several short stories, including a final story about Ged’s last days that was published in the Paris Review shortly after Le Guin’s own death. 

In Le Guin’s imagined Earthsea, magic is intimately tied to language. Knowing something or someone’s real name gives you power over that thing or person. When an individual makes the passage into adulthood, a witch or magician whispers their true name to them. You would never reveal your name to anyone else, except perhaps your spouse and closest friends. Instead, the inhabitants of Earthsea go through life identified by their childhood use names or subsequent nicknames. Numerous philosophical and religious traditions, including my own Mormon one, likewise place great weight on names and naming.


When I lived in Chicago long ago, I was single, young, and kid-free. The gay dating scene was very different before its hostile takeover by smart phone apps. Things were more personal. I even had a sorta social life.

Many folks consider Chicago’s Sidetrack to be the best gay bar in the country, perhaps in the universe. Each night of the week features a lovingly curated mix of music and videos. As I wrote in one of my very earliest blog posts, Mondays have always been my favourite night at Sidetrack: all Showtunes, all night long. 

Every Monday night, I would meet my friend Charles. After downing an indeterminate number of the bar's potent purple slushie drinks, we would dissect my less-than-fabulous social life. On the TV screens in the background, a plus-sized woman from Dreamgirls belted about how we all were going to love her. Meanwhile Charles or I assigned each dubious gentleman in my life his own epithet:  Mormon Boy, Skinny Pharmacist, Evil Josh, Clunky Midwest Poster Child, Coffee Boys I, II, III, IV, V, VI, and VII…. 

Behind every name is a story. Each of these epithets also provided a convenient code in case the guy in question wandered through Sidetrack and overheard us.

Our naming tradition continued even after I moved back to Seattle and then to Bellingham. The unfolding story introduced new characters like Chorus Guy, Funeral Dude, White Aaron, Super Fuzzy Thing, Dark Roast, and my personal favourite epithet lately, Trailer Park Single Dad. Don’t ask.

As far as I recall, I’ve never acquired a nickname myself (other than briefly flirting with “Smiley” during my painful junior high year in Utah). Let me know if you’ve heard otherwise. Even better, let me know if you have any colourful suggestions for a brand-new epithet that captures my personality these days. 

Remember I'm fifty-five years old now. Avoid references to “Boy.” Extra points for the tasteful use of “DILF.”   






1 comment:

  1. We had a good time the other night confusing reveille and revelry. Party all night long.

    ReplyDelete