TALES OF THE UNCANNY - FALLING INTO DESUETUDE
This post is the second in a series of posts inspired by Theresa Van Santana, a.k.a. Tracy, a.k.a. @tvansantana, who is also present these days as @ellowrites. Recently she has been encouraging us to comment on the writing of other - um - ellowriters, but she also advised us not to be pedantic. I am trying not to take this personally, Theresa, but since this is far too long for a comment I hope you will accept this as my response to your recent post. Neither of the above suggestions, unless they are admonitions, is the real inspiration. The real inspiration is this one about Hercules Mulligan. I have to agree that this sounds like the name of a fictional character - Thomas Pynchon anyone? - but it turns out to be the name of an actual historical personage who not long ago re-appeared as a fictional character in Hamilton, a very popular new musical comedy about which I know absolutely nothing. However, and by way of compensation for not knowing anything about Hercules Mulligan in either his historical or fictional or comical-tragical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited manifestations, I thought I might say something about the name Hercules and how it has fallen into desuetude. A bit too pedantic would you say? Keep reading; it gets worse.
I think upon reflection this might be the first time I have ever tried using desuetude in my writing – I always used to be shy when it came to desuetude, but finally got up my nerve to try it. It was ok really; sort of like that first kiss with a girl who wasn’t a relative when I was about twelve or thirteen years old. I went to a party with my cousin who lived on Staten Island. Kissing games were the big attraction but I was kind of nervous about it. There was a record player and we were supposed to be dancing with each other; I don't think the parents upstairs were fooled. Anyway her name was Esther or Elvira or maybe Ellen and she knew a thing or two about kissing – or maybe she just liked kissing me. She had brown eyes; I never saw her again after that night.
It is quite true that in its English form, Hercules is a name that has fallen into desuetude although, somewhat surprisingly, it has been moving up in the baby-name-popularity rankings in recent years, climbing all the way up from no. 13,276 in 2011 to a much more impressive no. 4,797 in 2016. Results not available for the current year. Where I live in Québec - we don’t much like calling ourselves a “province” but that’s another story - the name Hercule continues to have much greater currency and recently Monsieur Hercule Boulanger, a member of Mont Sutton’s founding family, had himself photographed skiing on water. He was not water-skiing or walking on water and no I don’t get it either. In fact, if you were to google the name Hercule and then combine it with any one of the 100 or so traditional Québecois family names you are going to find somebody with that name. I didn’t actually try all of the 100 but I’m saying close enough until somebody proves me wrong. For the record the porter in the Arts Building was named Ercole. He was Italian. Somebody once told me that on weekends he was a competitive bicycle racer.
A friend of mine named Peter Roberts or maybe his name is Robert Brown, or could even be Bob Peters has recently observed that where he works at Mount Allison University baggy pants that hang down have recently fallen into desuetude in favor of slim cut jeans. As I understand it Sackville, NB, may be the last place on earth where baggy pants that leave nothing to the imagination even though you wish they would have at long last fallen into desuetude.
So, it appears that something like a name can fall into desuetude, but not just any old thing can fall into desuetude because it would usually be an activity, a tradition, a social attitude like respect for knowledge or else ballroom dancing. Ballroom dancing was fun and kind of sexy but nobody knows how to do it anymore except old people so – you know. It’s too bad really, because there was something graceful and civilized about twentieth-century dances like fox-trot or waltz or tango. I once found out that my publisher, a woman of considerable distinction, knew how to tango and I briefly considered asking if she would do the tango with me at the Malone Society dance that we hold every year at the end of the Shakespeare Association meetings. I thought better of it. She is a lot taller than I and we would have looked - um - farcical dancing the tango together. One thing that is definitely not comme il faut is making a farce out of a tango.
I think you can say that certain kinds of objects – let’s say a brace and bit – have fallen into desuetude but who would say such a thing? I actually still have a brace - not sure what happened to the bits - that my father used on his week-end carpentry projects. He could drill a pretty big hole with it, and he could do it as fast as most people could with an electric drill, but there’s another skill that has fallen into desuetude.
Nobody ever says desuetude when they’re speaking because it’s something you might write but you would never actually say it, or let’s just say I’ve never said it and I don’t know anyone who has. There’s no way that something can rise into desuetude – it wouldn’t make any sense to say that, yo. I don’t know how to punctuate sentences that end with yo. On sound it seems like it should be a question mark but it’s not a question so I guess you have to go with a regular period. So the big question I was faced with this morning when I woke up was whether there was any way for something to get into the state of desuetude otherwise than by falling, or contrariwise whether desuetude is one of those words that can only appear as part of a set phrase as in falling into desuetude. It only took about 47 seconds to find out the answer to this question once I logged into my McGill account and checked the OED On-Line because let’s face it, laborious research involving books and libraries and patience is one of those things that is now falling into desuetude if it has not already fallen there.
So in 1629 you might have come across general laziness and desuetude of Martiall Exercises. In 1650 certain acts were buried and brought into desuetude, while in 1678 the weighty Truths of God were neglected, and, as it were, went into Desuetude. A bit later, in 1874, we find the exercise of rights which had practically passed into desuetude. So you can get there without exactly falling. But what about verb tenses? Obviously simple past and past perfect do just fine but couldn’t I also use the conditional or the future? The land-line will soon fall into desuetude or it would fall into desuetude if something or other doesn’t happen.
I have to say it’s a damn shame about ballroom dancing. I once had a colleague in the Anthropology Department, nice guy, seemed fit and healthy, and one day he went to a conference somewhere and while he was dancing to a rock band with all his might and main, speaking of phrases that have fallen into desuetude, he collapsed on the dance floor and died of a heart attack. If, however, he had been doing a nice sedate waltz with that pretty young graduate student he might still be alive, but who can say really. I was never that fond of the polka, frankly speaking, but I did like waltzing and it was something you could do with people of different ages or fitness levels. The tango was even better for my money as long as your partner didn’t go all campy on you.
Still harping on tangos am I? Yes, I know there are samba clubs and tango studios and even ballroom dancing contests but seriously this is just that much more confirmation that these things have fallen into desuetude because you have to have some kind of niche market and spend money just to be able to do them. I have a friend from New York who always says nitch market and he gets cranky with me if I say neesh market, but to me - a person living in Québec - his attitude is just provincial. (Internal cross-reference here) There are a few things that have not fallen into desuetude even though we would all be better off if they did because then we might be able to get out of the morass of invidiousness we find ourselves in. I’m not going to mention any examples here, except that one of those things we would all be better off if it fell into desuetude is a nostalgic theory of history. If you have any questions about desuetude I’ll do my best to answer them but in the meantime you could just say disuse. I would not advise you to ask Professor Shithead about this. He’ll just tell you to look it up.
Right now I’m just hoping that my readership hasn’t fallen into desuetude because that would make me sad. Maybe everybody is just kind of busy these days.