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Renaming Names

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Gilbert Ford

When I first heard a leader refer to the opposition as the "Democrat Party," I chalked it up to ignorance and an Ivy League education gone bad. Later, I learned that it was an intentional sign of disrespect. My mistake was natural enough — the line between disrespect and ignorance is a fine one. But that episode made me think that we may be on the verge of something big, nothing less than a revolution in disrespect.

Before explaining, I want to be clear about a couple of things. Present-day disrespect is bipartisan, multiracial, trans-generational, pan-regional, and embedded in daily life. It may be the most democratic thing in America.

Disrespect itself is also nothing new. It has been a mainstay of comedy since antiquity, when the first stand-up comic made the first joke about "His Royal Hindness" (shortly thereafter becoming the first drawn-and-quartered stand-up comic). Disrespect is an ancient tradition in American politics, and it may even be at a lesser level today than it was at the birth of the republic. The Founding Fathers used hired journalists to say things about each other that would have brought a blush to the grizzled cheeks of Don Imus. President George Washington, according to opposition-party pundits, was "treacherous" and "a tyrannical monster," whose Farewell Address spewed "the loathings of a sick mind." This was a generation of leaders for whom mangling an opposing party's name was sissy stuff.

Disrespectful renaming likewise has a long lineage in other cultures and in everyday American life. I wouldn't be surprised if ancient Spartans had a demeaning parody name for Athenians (Ass-thenians?), and vice versa. Even contemporary names, like Infernal Revenue Service and Monster-in-Law, have been around a while.

So what's new? In the past, disrespectful names were deployed casually and infrequently, in an ad hoc way. The great contemporary breakthrough is using them systematically in everything from ordinary conversations to political speeches. That heralds the dawn of a Brave New World of disrespect. Here is how America can lead humankind there. We add a fifth freedom to Franklin Roosevelt's four: the freedom to call anything we dislike whatever we want and insist that it's the right name, no matter how the renamed person or organization feels about it. The result would be something new under the sun, an all-encompassing Society of Disrespect (SOD). Its creators would be Sods, a form of self-identification to use sparingly in Britain.

The possibilities are liberating. If I have a poorly performing class, its members are "my stu-dunces." (They already have names for me.) Rather than making nice, one feuding spouse introduces the other as "my bitter half." Last names present special opportunities for disrespect and a few invite easy parody. A surname reminiscent of a smelly cheese? "Limburger" from now on. Dislike Al Gore? Couple of possibilities there. Don't like the most populous state in the Union? Its northern neighbor solved that with a bumper sticker: "Don't Californicate Oregon."

As with any utopian vision, creating a SOD presents difficulties. There doubtless will be a Civility Resistance Unity Movement (whose members Sods will call "CRUMs"). Careers will be made ridiculing it.

A bigger problem is that dissing isn't as easy as it appears to be. First, it has to be clear that the mangled name is an insult, rather than the product of bad education, poor language skills, or alcohol. Second, it's easier to find demeaning names for some people and things than others. Take, for example, the Cabinet. It is simple to refer to its members as "Cabinuts" and turn the Department of Defense into the Department of Deep Expense, but what demeaning name springs to mind for the Department of Agriculture? In fact, as we move to a SOD, there will be a scramble to adopt names defying parody. Goodbye "Homeland Security," hello, "Department of Saving Innocent Lives." Prominent people whose last names are easy targets (see above) will rush to change. There will be a boom in middle European surnames without vowels.

Creating a SOD requires enormous amounts of hard work, creativity, self-righteousness, and malice. But grass roots support is there — just listen to talk radio, browse cable television, or drive in any major city. Like other movements for social change, however, success requires something more: leadership from the top.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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