I believe I started the seventh grade "syphilis" epidemic.
It was in the summer after sixth grade. In those days I was in the habit of reading books I couldn't quite understand; mostly histories and novels about history from the bookcase in my father's office. I stared at the titles until one day he told me I could take any book I'd like so long as I'd put it back in its place after I finished with it. I think it was in one of these books I came across the phrase "the syphilitic king."
I did not know what that meant, so I asked my father and he, after a fashion, managed to explain it to me without touching on the subject of sex. I came away from that confusing conversation armed with almost no facts about the venereal disease but believing that I understood the word.
I imagined it was a kind of contagious moral rot one caught doing evil or being in the company of bad people; it eventually led to madness and death, it quite often infected royalty and genius and other interesting people, and it wasn't anything that I or my friends--well, most of my friends, anyway--should ever have to worry about.
And so "syphilitic" became my adjective of choice that summer; succeeding "tuff," which succeeded "groovy."
In some ways it was a perfect word to adopt. While it wasn't a curse, it had about it a whiff of sulphur, and--at least to the skull of mush that was my seventh-grade boy's mind--a certain sophistication.
I introduced it to my friends, some of whom thought it sounded cool. Anything that an 11-year-old boy might call "wicked" or "cool" became "syphilitic" for that summer in our circle, and when we went back to school--when we were fed into Rialto Junior High--we brought our argot with us. And, as preteens will, we probably over-indulged our vernacular.
Soon Pontiac GTOs were "syphilitic." The Rolling Stones were "syphilitic." (While this might be arguably defensible; after all, Keith Richards even once had a wolfhound named Syphilis, so it represented a lucky guess on our part.) Yo Yo skateboard wheels were "syphilitic." Steve McQueen was "syphilitic." God forgive us, Ali MacGraw was "syphilitic."
This lasted for about two weeks, when someone--maybe a wised-up eight-grader but more likely a sympathetic teacher--took one of us aside and (I hope, gently) explained that we didn't really know what that word meant. We were pretending to knowledge we didn't own, which is what "pretentious" used to mean before we started using it as an all-purpose term of denigration.
Unlike our football coach, who certainly did know what it meant when he called us a bunch of "syphilitic pissants" who couldn't tackle a word problem with a workable equation and made us run another mile.
Anyway, that's one of the ways we learn: We confidently misunderstand something and then get totally embarrassed. A lot of people roll their eyes when someone mispronounces Cannes ("can," not "khan") or "Caipirinha" ("kay-pee-reen-ya" not "kap-ree-in-ya") but I try to be tolerant, especially since I'm as likely to mispronounce both those words as not. Also, I don't pronounce it this way because I'm not an idiot, but the Italian pronunciation of "calzone" ("cal-zo-nay") lays much better on my ears than the American pronunciation ("cal-zone") which sounds like a mistake.
A friend of mine pronounces the car marque ("mark" not "mar-kay") Infiniti "in-fin-neety" rather than "infinity." (Since he knows better, I guess this is trolling the manufacturer for its cutesy spelling.)
My colleague Brenda Looper recently wrote about how there are certain words she knew the meaning of as a child but wasn't sure how to pronounce, a common enough phenomenon among those who tend to read at or above grade level. And sometimes the opposite also occurs.
"I had never seen the word 'facade' spelled out," the comedian Kevin Hart said on Mike and Mike on ESPN Radio in 2014. So when, in an early movie role, he encountered it in a script, he read his line as, "C'mon man, don't you see that this is a fa-CADE?"
"And they were like 'Cut!'," Hart continued. "And I was like, 'What's up man, what's going on?' And the director came over to me, and he said 'Kevin, so, um, ah, let me see your [lines], let me see what you got there . . .' and I mean, I know my lines, I mean, I'm ready, and he said, 'What are you saying right here?' and he pointed to the word. And I said, 'That's fa-CADE!' And he said, 'That's facade.' And I said, 'Get out of here.' "
From then on, Hart decided to do a lot more ad-libbing in his roles.
A lot of people ridiculed Donald Rumsfeld for his syntax, but when he said that "unknown unknowns"--things we don't know we don't know--are the most treacherous, he was telling the truth.
Also, I imagine I would have a hard time spelling "syphilitic" if I were competing in a spelling bee. I'm a competent speller, but there's something about the way my mind works that prevents me from spelling almost any word without writing (or typing) it out first. And there are some words I simply can't spell, the chief one being "parallel" (which I just nailed in my second attempt, which means that maybe there is hope for me).
If I could have carried a pad of paper and a pencil onstage I still wouldn't have had a chance against the eight kids who broke the most recent Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee, but I would have trounced a lot of the people denigrating that remarkable performance simply because no clear single champion emerged from the competition. At the least my having played a part in the spread of "syphilis" through a significant part of the seventh grade was indicative of a curious mind.
As our beloved Labrador Coal Dog used to say, "English is hard." May he rest in peace.
Actually it came out more as "Engloosh har eez" but we took his point, which I hope is what most people did back when I was talking about how the fight scenes in Billy Jack were "tres syphilitic." Though I'm just now realizing that they probably didn't.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.
Editorial on 06/04/2019
Print Headline: PHILIP MARTIN: The myth of syphilis