Entry from April 24, 2014

The subject of my last post — history that is lost to the next generation, either on account of miseducation or the political motivation of the educators or, most likely, both — also has a literary and linguistic dimension, as I realized while reading Henry Hitchings’s review in The Wall Street Journal of Paul Dickson’s Authorisms. Let us consider, as a footnote to that review, its treatment of the word "retromingent." Here’s what Mr Hitchings writes about it:

One sometimes wishes that Mr. Dickson’s curiosity extended further. He observes that the adjective "retromingent" (urinating backward) was not coined by Ben Bradlee, the former editor of the Washington Post. And indeed it wasn’t. Mr. Bradlee used it in a hostile response to the nagging attentions of his critic Reed Irvine ("You have revealed yourself as a miserable, carping, retromingent vigilante") and later wrote: "God knows where I found ‘retromingent’ but it was the perfect word for the occasion." Mr. Dickson doesn't pursue the question of where Mr. Bradlee might have stumbled up on [sic] the term.

Interestingly, Mr Hitchings also doesn’t pursue the question of where Ben Bradlee got his five dollar word, except to point out that "it is a little less obscure that [sic] either of them seems to have imagined," and he mentions some of its previous users as quoted in The Oxford English Dictionary.

Still more remarkably, the OED itself does not trouble to explain, if it knows, how a Latinate term from biology found itself employed as (in its words) "a term of abuse." Its first citation comes from Sir Thomas Browne in 1646, in the book with the best title ever and one which I have long hoped to use myself: Pseudodoxia epidemica. Usually translated as "Vulgar Errors," the Greek would be literally (unless I am mistaken) something like "an epidemic of false opinions." Of course, poor old Sir Thomas could never have foreseen how widely that particular epidemic would spread in subsequent centuries. He uses the term in the context of a consideration of whether or not hares, as was believed (he says) by Plutarch and others, were individually of both sexes.

The only citation apart from Ben Bradlee’s where the word is apparently used with an abusive intent comes from one of Jonathan Swift’s mock astrological predictions, this one in the name of Martinus Scriblerus, in which it is said that on the 29th of December 1722 would take place "the mutual transformation of the sexes. . .the human males being to be turned into females and the human females into males." He has a lot of fun at the expense of those of his contemporaries whom he presumably saw as being either effeminate males or mannish females, at one point warning the newly transformed men not to forget "that they are become Retromingent, and not by Inadvertency lift up against Walls and Posts." But do we now even remember that it was once considered insulting for members of one sex to be assigned traits or qualities that were more usually associated with the other?

The point of Swift’s rough satire, like the word, must have become obscure in some degree, even to Mr Bradlee whose "perfect word" is also apparently perfect in its abusive quality and so comes without any hint of its origins or what is insulting about it. The same may be true of the late Mr Irvine, who gleefully seized upon Mr Bradlee’s insult to establish himself at the head of what he called the Order of the Miserable Carping Retromingent Vigilantes, along with his fellow gadflies at Accuracy in Media. Even the late William F. Buckley Jr. — from whom I’m guessing Ben Bradlee picked up the word and for whom it was a favorite after he admitted having had to look it up upon its being applied to him by an abusive but erudite correspondent — seems to have thought it referred to "pissing into the wind."

In fact it must have been, in a Latinate way typical of Swift, a learned insult against those he considered (or purported to consider) to be girlie-men. Interestingly, that word (or compound) is already in the OED, though Kevin Nealon, who supposedly came up with it in 1987 for the "Hans and Franz" sketch he did on "Saturday Night Live" with Dana Carvey, gets no credit for it. Priority goes to a now-forgotten author of children’s books, Julia Cooley Altrocchi, who used it (in her Wolves Against the Moon of 1940) in a monitory sense to describe what a boy’s parents must not allow him to become. The second citation, from 1989, had obviously picked the word up from SNL. The Dictionary can’t or won’t explain how the advent of camp during the nearly half-century between 1940 and 1989 had intervened to give the expression what amounted to a completely different and only ironic meaning.

In other words, the insult is now considered to be against the person who says it, rather than the person of whom it is said. We could tell this, if in no other way, by the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was clearly the inspiration for Messrs. Nealon and Carvey, later took to using it himself in the spirit of good-natured self-parody, rather as Reed Irvine took to using "retromingent." The deep meaning and cultural history of "girlie-men," though perhaps they are already beginning to fade a bit from the collective consciousness, must be as clear to us as "retromingent" was to the learned wits of Swift’s era, but I wonder what they’ll make of "girlie-men" in three hundred years’ time?

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