There are two ways I’d rather NOT be remembered. The first is by way of “Tsantsa,” which is a peculiar process of preservation. First my head would be lopped off my body, which is an immediate indication that things are bad and about to get worse. Then my facial skin is removed until I am a loose bag of derma. Hot rocks and sand are poured in to shrink my head down to the size of a baseball. My lips would be sewn together to prevent my soul from escaping. Then some type of beaded string would be passed through my ears. Thoroughly humiliated, I would then be placed around the neck of some rotten Jivaro tribal elder to be worn to parties and council meetings, staring out from between his nipples in what could largely be considered defeat.   

The other way I’d rather not be remembered, which is almost as embarrassing, is to have my last name entered into the English dictionary as a verbal insult. There is no more intimate association to a person than their surname, and to see it in bold print as a definition for something filthy, vulgar and depraved is probably as bad as it gets.

This is what happened to Vidkun Quisling, the head of the Norwegian government during the Nazi occupation. His last name is now in every English dictionary with the definition, “A traitor who sells out his country.” The allied history is certainly no fan of Mr. Quisling. He can only die once, technically, but every time a person opens a thesaurus to find that special word that really hammers the point home about how treacherous and  underhanded someone can be, there he is. “Quisling.”

Quisling is almost as bad as “burke,” a word which also appears in the dictionary based on someone’s past behavior. The definition of “burke” is weirdly specific. It is a verb that describes murdering someone, but in such a way as to preserve the body for dissection.  Named after William Burke, Irish grave robber and murderer. That is quite detailed. Not only is Mr. Burke shamed for subsequent generations, his whole lineage is branded, right up the line. It is unsettling to think that today’s roll call is tomorrow’s string of epithets. My grandfather would be pissed if the word “hull” suddenly took on an added meaning in the modern lexicon.

Hull–(1) Outer husk of a fruit. (2) Body of a ship. (3) Casing of a rocket. (4) Total fucking idiot.

Speaking of “Tsantsas,” I toured the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia some years back with a friend of mine. The place is not for the faint of heart. It is a museum of medical oddities. It showcases nature’s wild experiments on herself. Everything from conjoined twins to people with horns growing out of their heads to a lady who turned into a huge, five-foot bar of soap when she died. My friend humored me. I insisted on going and he obliged. Such is the nature of friendships anchored in immovable earth. My friend lingered in front of the “Tsantsa” exhibit for a good while, reading about the mysticism, the process, the voodoo. When he turned to walk off he stopped in front of me and said, “I think I’ve now seen the rudest way to treat someone after they die.”

For some reason I laughed, even though he hadn’t meant it as a joke. People looked at me for snickering like I was crazy. Of all the places to express mirth, being surrounded by a roomful of vacant skulls is not one of them. But that was the point. Was our modern setup any different than the Jivaro? We had this stuff on display too. Was it more dignified because it was in a glass case?

I kept up a practice for about six months or so of looking up certain words to see whether they were taken from actual names of people for exaggerated behavior and characteristics. A word like “squeamish” seemed to me to have possibly been derived from a notorious puker. “Named after Ned Squeam, guy who couldn’t ride a horse and buggy for two minutes without retching all over the place.”

“Shit”–horrendous fecal material. Named after Edmond Shit, this British fellow that nobody ever really liked.

“Taboo”– named after Lionel Taboo, who liked to watch his sisters undress, and found the sight of dead bodies erotic.

I eventually lost interest. It was a tedious exercise, and I found it more fun to invent the provenance rather than study it. In fact, I even developed a theory that wet dirt was just wet dirt until Dr. Samuel Mudd was found guilty of complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, lending his medical expertise to bandage the leg of John Wilkes Booth after he leapt from the balcony of Ford’s Theatre. After that someone probably said, “You know this wet, filthy gunk that gets caught in everything after a rainstorm? It needs to be known as mudd. You know what? Take that last ‘d’ off of the word. Don’t want to give him too much notoriety. Mud is too good for the man. Now if we can just come up with a word for a guy who likes to grab women by the vagina.”

More Alembics to come.

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