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“Let’s not Rumsfeld Afghanistan”

The birth of another political eponym As we know, There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know There are known...



The birth of another political eponym


As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns.
The ones we don't know we don't know.

-Donald Rumsfeld (linebreaks by Hart Seely, editor of Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld)

No it's not National Poetry Month (that's April), and Donald Rumsfeld hasn't gone the way of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett. The former Secretary of Defense is on the mind of word nerds like myself for a different and far more amusing reason: his name has become, at least briefly, an eponym-one of those words that started as a name. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina got creative on "Face the Nation", saying
The political poetry of Graham's coinage is even more delicious than Rumsfeld's own verse: to Rumsfeld Afghanistan is vivid and clear. It expresses an important worry in a concise fashion-all Strunk and White-huggers should love it. But how did Donald Rumsfeld get to be known as the chief cheapskate of 21st century war?

The poor planning and general shoddiness of the early years of the Iraq war are the main reasons, plus Rumsfeld's own oft-quoted words, "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time." The fact that such lame reasoning came in response to soldiers complaining about lack of equipment and protection only made things worse for Rummy, who became the poster child for a quagmire, until his resignation in 2006.

Politics has been a major contributor of eponyms, as my fellow American Dialect Society members (especially Joel S. Berson, Laurence Horn, Steve Kleinedler, Clai Rice, Dave Wilton, Ben Zimmer, and Arnold Zwicky) reminded me this week. Pander-perhaps the ultimate political word these days-is derived from the name Pandarus, who the Oxford English Dictionary describes as "a Trojan archer who is said to have procured for Troilus the love and good graces of Chryseis." A more contemporary example-the Paul Simon song "A Simple Desultory Philippic (or How I Was Robert McNamara'd into Submission)"-is eerily reminiscent of Rumsfeld. The OED recently added entries for Presidential words Bushism, Bushian, Bushist, Clintonesque, and Clintonista. Clintonian was already included, but it was coined originally for George Clinton-the vice-president, not the legendary funkster.

For some reason, Supreme Court nominees have been prone to eponymization, maybe due to the length and drama of the pre-appointment hearings. The most notable was Bork, a term that still gets used, as in a recent Savannah Morning News editorial: "The public is ill-served when qualified nominees get ‘Borked'-a term that originated when Democratic senators savaged Reagan nominee Judge Robert Bork and set the stage for future partisan ugliness." Other terms such as Miered and Soutered have appeared, though they don't seem to have caught on. Bork probably had two advantages in becoming a successful word: it immortalized a memorable political smackdown, and the word bork is vivid and punchy. Hell, it's a four-letter word, and we all know how much better people feel after saying them. Given the relative uneventfulness of the Sonia Sotomayor hearings and the length of her name, I doubt we'll be hearing about much Sotomayoring in the latest blogs and tweets, but that term has been coined too.

There's no way of knowing if Rumsfeld will last long beyond this column: it could probably use our help. Consider the possibilities:

If your spouse-who is known for bungling home repair-proclaims a new mission to renovate the gazebo, you could say, "Honey, please don't pull another Rumsfeld on this family."

The word could be used to call out various tightwads, misers, skinflints, and lousy tippers: "Never eat out with Steve. He's a real Rumsfelder."

When your NBA team is dumping players and salaries just to avoid the luxury tax, say, "Hey! You can't win a championship by Rumsfelding."

The word could even be used in positive ways: "Guess what, kids? We saved enough to buy a boat! No more Rumsfelding."

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