I was perusing the dictionary recently, as I will sometimes, in a sort of meandering, purposeless way, having already extracted the bit of hard info I came for and then being led down the lexicographical path by etymologic tidbits, subtle shades of meaning, orthoepic niceties, and of course, new words. New to me, that is. My dictionary is constructed of paper and ink rather than bits and bytes and not, as such, subject to constant real-time revision every time some tastemaker farts out a new way to say “awesome.” I am not, however, the type of rash and headstrong user to just haphazardly adopt any interesting term I might encounter, especially not for reasons of syllabic plurality or recondite character. No indeed. Words with the potential to join my quiver must first undergo a process of extreme vetting, not unlike a proponent of a suspect belief system attempting to emigrate, before they can set foot on the fertile shores of my vocabulary. A number of questions must be asked, like do I need this word? Will it add color and texture to an existing concept, or illuminate some abstraction in a new and interesting way?
Maybe it's a utilitarian noun for something I didn't even know had a name.
I am not about to start brandishing a word nolens volens before I have a thorough understanding of its disposition and am comfortable in its usage. If I then decide to put it in my cart, the word enters a sort of holding area to await a process in which I begin by incorporating the word into my thoughts and being on the lookout for examples of usage.
This was much easier with a computer and the Internet, where I could summon the work of a respected writer and do a term search. As things currently stand, it's a lengthy and sometimes fruitless process and so I've built up quite a backlog.
The reason I do this is that I have the ability to tell, at a glance, whether a writer has a good working relationship with a word or has simply plucked some likely-looking candidate from the thesaurus. I presume others can too, and I sure as hell don't want to be That Guy, the one who chooses words for their ability to dazzle or impress and not for their suitability.
There's a right word for every situation. You may have to borrow from other languages or even sometimes make it up yourself, but it's there. I don't always find it, but it's damn sure not for lack of trying.
Anyway, so there I am up to the third knuckle in Webster and I find myself on the page spanning Truck to Trunk, which I immediately recognize as the neighborhood housing a word I used only to employ while playing pinochle but has of late hijacked a good portion of my consciousness, “trump.” I naturally scroll down to see what the authorities have to say about it and damned if definition number three, the verb transitive meaning, doesn't say "to concoct fraudulently." Well, I mean. Fraudulent concoction being our president’s stock-in-trade, I'd say that's pretty on the nose, and it got me wondering if any of our other Cs-in-C have managed to live up to the dictionary definition of their names.
“Reagan” is about 96% of a homonym of “ray-gun,” and he was pretty enamored of a science-fiction story his cabinet dreamed up about a giant space-based ray gun to shut him up about the Evil Empire. That kind of fits. Harry S Truman had a reputation for plain, honest speaking and sincerity, hence a “true man.” Bingo. Hoover definitely sucked, so there's that. I find no direct evidence pointing to Pierce being fond of stabbing or Polk to jabbing, but I think it's as likely they were as not. William Henry Harrison begat six male heirs and if the luxuriant beard of his grandson Benjamin is any indication, he had at least one “hairy son.” Bush (II) was definitely that, in the sense of the baseball-derived epithet for a bumbling amateur, “busher.”
None quite so pat as Trump, though, which makes me think we should just go ahead and float a candidate named Barry Goodpresident next time around. Couldn't hurt.
My own surname, Washburne, wouldn't seem to indicate anything about my personality, but you couldn't tell that to the kids I went to elementary school with. As you know, children will seize on the flimsiest excuse imaginable to make fun of someone, and while parents do and should consider this when naming children, and if you send a kid named Harry Glasscock out into the world he's surely in for it, but a determined tormentor can turn even "Bill Miller" or "John Smith" into a vile, needling epithet.
For my part, and this bit of japery was independently arrived at by every fresh batch of kids I encountered throughout my elementary years, they would say to me, “Washburne, huh? What do you do, wash your clothes and then burn 'em?”
My initial response was “Ha ha, very funny.” Then I decided to counter with logic. “Well, if I did, then I wouldn't have any clothes, now would I?!" which of course set them to crowing about my impending nudity. Finally I just settled on "Yes. Yes, I do," which usually shut them up.
Washburne (or -burn, the “e” being appended by my three-greats grandsire to distinguish himself from the brothers he was feuding with) is a corruption of Wash-bourne, or born, meaning from the area of the Wash, a squarish bay on England's eastern shore. The fishermen and farmers of the area are known for being unintelligible, violent, irascible, drunken louts who were invited by the archbishop to officially discontinue their patronage of the Church of England, a famously easygoing and tolerant sect. Thus did their provenance wind up doing surname duty. Whereas most folks of the time and place went by their professions, your wrights and bakers and smiths and such, Washburn evolved to explain erratic behavior, as in, "That fellow over there just drank all my ale, refused to pay, is even now smashing up my tavern, and I can't understand a word he says."
"Oh, that one. He's Wash-bourne, best leave him be, he'll pass out eventually.”
While I am proud of my name and lineage and pleased to carry on the ancient traditions of the Wash-bourne, it happens that in certain delicate circumstances I am forced to forsake that proud name and temporarily adopt a substitute, lest some past mischief be brought to light and unfairly color someone's perception of my character. This tactic was much easier before the current rapid-identification technologies used by police agencies were in place and in fact is pretty much impossible now, but I find that with a little creativity and verve I can sometimes make it past the first layer of detention and inquiry. Every once in a while, that's enough. The key is not to blurt out some kind of "Bob Thomas"-y name that will be immediately recognized as subterfuge, as most criminals do. I like to either adopt the name of a famous person, maybe two, as in: “That's right, my name is Torn Hanks. Thomas Edison Hanks,” or dream up something outlandish like “Cuchulainn Despiritu. Call me Kook,” on the theory that the more made-up it sounds, the less likely it is that I will have made it up. It's a Hail Mary play and as such rarely scores, but what else am I going to do? Give up? Not bloody likely.
So there I was, being frogmarched through the Ukiah Safeway after being nabbed for pinching a pair of sunglasses .It's terribly embarrassing, being paraded in front of all the shoppers for such a piffling crime, and I was mentally kicking myself even as I scoured the archives for a likely alias. If I could persuade management to let me off with a warning and banishment I'd be okay, but if the Police Department was summoned the game was surely up, as both they and my parole officer were missing me awfully and desirous of a chat.
The security guy sat me down in the office and asked me my name. “Valentine Greatorex,” I said.
“Got some I.D.?”
“Nope, sorry, left it at home.”
“Alright, sit tight, I'm going to get the manager.”
He summoned a bag-boy to watch me and left. I should mention here that I was in a state of advanced fatigue and mental disarray owing to an extended and liberal program of self-administered stimulant therapy, which is to say spun to the gills after being up multiple days tweaking. It is possible in this condition to maintain forward momentum for a surprisingly long time as long as the mission is “go,” the mission being the pursuit, acquisition, and ingestion of more drugs. Once it becomes apparent the mission has been scotched, though, things come to a very abrupt halt as the body no longer has the very compelling impetus to obey formerly providing its vis viva. Ergo, as soon as I sat down in the chair, a general alarm went up in my head and my internal PA system crackled to life. “Shut 'er down!” it said. “Praise Jeebus, we're pinched! Sweet dreams, everyone!”
Shutters slammed forcibly down and lights dimmed as all my body's systems called it a day and I fell immediately and deeply asleep.
Naturally, when the manager came in and the security guard shook me very rudely and roughly awake, I had no idea where I was or what was going on. I looked around, struggling to regain my bearings, at the three men looking accusingly at me.
“Name?” the manager said.
Oh, right. Safeway. It seemed like a hundred years ago, and I couldn't remember what name I'd given. I went ahead and took a swing, missing by a mile.
“Ponyboy Curtis,” I said.
“That's not what he said before,” said the security guard. “He said his name was Vaseline Tyrannosaurus or some shit.”
“Alright, we'll let the cops sort him out, whoever he is,” the manager said.
The authorities were summoned and the responding officer immediately recognized me, rendering the issue moot and sending the jig hurtling skyward at a rapid clip. “Stay gold, Ponyboy,” the manager said as my driver herded me out to begin the walk of shame through the store.
“Haven't you done enough?” I snapped, completely unreasonably.
It would be disingenuous of me to ascribe reasons of heredity or genetics to my failings as a citizen. I'm sure the original troublesome Washburne blood has been sufficiently filtered and admixed by stabling infusions to permit our subsumption into polite society, but I have no problem naming my moon in Aquarius, fluouridated water, MAD magazine, forced busing, cloud seeding, daytime television, fluorescent lighting, public schools, rock music, modern art, sunspots, background radiation, restrictive underpants, the designated hitter rule, abrasive toilet tissue, New Coke, historical trauma, polar vortices, and paraquat as possible catalysts responsible for my antisocial behavior and subsequent confinement. It couldn't possibly be my fault. Only a complete idiot would behave in such a manner as to wind up like this, right? Let the lawsuits commence!