A Verbal Whipping For Fair-Weather Wordsmiths
Right now, I shall say a few words about ''right now'' and related foolishness, including a dandy word I seem to have invented in one of my occasional tilts with Humpty Dumpty, that faithful old master of the general subject. For years and without success, I fought alone with the TV and radio giants who keep saying, ''Presently the temperature is 38 degrees....''
That ''presently'' does not mean ''now'' was lost in the scuffle, and right now the morning news crews are having a love affair with ''right now,'' and from thunder showers to Christmas blizzards, you seldom hear a ''presently.'' ''Now,'' as a settled word, means the moment at hand, and it does no good whatever to ask these experts if there be a ''left now'' and a ''wrong now,'' or even an ''almost now.''
We must always allow for the funny people who want to change the name of something, and I suppose we must also allow for those who sit back in their do-nothing chairs and let them. We used to have a lovely pond in Maine that early settlers called Dry Pond, and for some reason agitation arose to call it Crystal Lake. Then we had another pond that never had any name, and people called it No Name Pond. All at once, people were thinking of names to call No Name Pond if the name were to be changed.
One of the great triumphs of sanity came some years ago when it was proposed in the Maine legislature that a ''less offensive'' name be found for Louse Island. Happily, the suggestion was defeated, and we still have our Louse Island in the Mattagaman Lakes, on the border of our dedicated Baxter State Park.
We don't know why Louse Island was first called Louse Island, but a plausible suggestion is that on a pleasant spring day the vernal sun would strike the sandy shore and make it comfortable for a man to disrobe, whereupon the Indians, and later the woodchoppers of nearby lumber camps, would come to do so and rid themselves of certain vermin that always go with a long winter in a small space with a crowd.
Louse Island was a popular delousing station. That may well be where the name came from, and for once we were proud of our Maine Legislature. In the debate, somebody said if they were about to change the name of Louse Island, they should ask the owner if he minded.
The way Maine public lands became private is hard to fathom, so nobody knew who owned it. One man said he thought he did, but he wasn't sure. Later, in the big land-settlement decision, the state gave Louse Island back to the Penobscot Nation.
So I spoke of Louse Island in scholarly dignity, and wrote that it was historically a rendezvous for purposes of depediculary exercises sacred to the eastern amerinds, and then I put my hat on and walked to the post office to mail my weekly dispatch to my editor, who is a pleasant sort and lets me spell hard words about how I please.
About three days after the Louse Island story appeared in print, my telephone hopped off the hook with a disaffectionate jangle, and I was presently (not quite right now) talking to a female critic who told me for starters that there is no such word as ''depediculary.''
''A curious nugget of information,'' I said, ''as I thought I just heard you use it!''
There are times, as when somebody wants to name No Name Pond, that it is wise to put your hat back on and go to the post office, and this was one, but I lingered while the lady said she had contacted her library, and the reference librarian had assured her there is no such word.
So there is no such word as ''depediculary,'' and it is accordingly impossible to depediculate even if you go to Louse Island and have permission from the chief.
I fell to thinking how curious it is that I can answer my telephone and be here right now to get my ear burned over depediculation, but when I call a television station the management is always out of town. I think a fair statement is that if you call a television station, there's nobody to talk to. They'll have 23 people saying right now, and if you ask to speak to one he's ''right now'' away from his phone.
In my campaign to better all sorts of things, I've thought often of the Beacon Hill gentleman in Boston who was ''out of town.''
His wife told me when I tried to reach him that I would have to call again. He was out of town. I asked what would be a convenient time, and she said she didn't know. He was in Antarctica for seven years with a scientific expedition.
And then we have television announcers who say the temperature right now is in the 30s.
Since this lady who corrected my depediculationism mentioned the library, I dropped a note to the reference librarian thereof to say that I'd never met one I didn't like and asked her about the tenga forests in Tierra del Fuego. Touch all bases, I always say.
But it is difficult to reach television stations. Sometimes I get the self-involved things where I'm told to press 1 for this and 2 for that, but they don't have any number for the boy who comes on at breakfast every morning to say, ''Right now the wind is south-southeast at 15 knots.'' So I push all the buttons and finish my porridge. And that evening the station runs a show called ''Unsolved Mysteries.'' The man says, ''And right now, a message from our sponsor.''