At some point, somewhere between junior high and last month, I realized that I had two George Romneys floating around in my consciousness. Every once in a while the thought would bubble up: Was the former governor of Michigan related to the English painter of the same name? It's a question that has occurred to me more frequently in the couple of years since Governor George's son Mitt was elected governor of Massachusetts, where I live.
George the painter is well represented at the Huntington Library in southern California, the first serious art gallery I was taken to as a child, and that's probably where I first encountered him. George the
governor popped up on my screen a few years after this, during his unsuccessful run for president.
Whether there's a family connection has never been anything I needed to know. But that's part of what makes it a quintessential Internet search: It's about the sheer luxury of being able to indulge my curiosity with a few keystrokes.
It turned out, though, that connecting the Romneys was harder than disambiguating them. When I Googled "George Romney English painter Michigan governor," I was led to a "disambiguation page" at Wikipedia.org.
"To disambiguate" means, in general, to "state unambiguously or to remove the ambiguities from (something)." The point of the Wikipedia page was to separate out Web pages referring to the painterly Romney from those referring to the political Romneys - the assumption being that one would be interested in one or the other, not both.
"Disambiguation" comes into play in distinguishing between, for instance, Turkey the country and turkey the bird. It's particularly important for online dictionaries.
I looked at a few of the pages my search turned up, but ran out of time before I could find anything that settled my question. It occurred to me, however, that "disambiguation" is a useful concept for thinking about language and the way it evolves. Often two words that are originally more or less synonyms, or variants of one another, start to separate out and specialize. Take "stanch" and "staunch," for instance. "Stanch" is settling into a full-time job as a verb - as in "to stanch a wound"; "staunch," meanwhile, has come to function largely as an adjective: "He counts on his staunch supporters."
"Convince" and "persuade" are another pair of almost-synonyms that have "disambiguated" themselves: One is convinced of something but persuaded to do something.
Sometimes a specialized new meaning for a word drives an old meaning out. "Virtual" and "virtually," in the computer-age sense, already has begun to crowd the earlier meaning of "in effect" or "for all intents and purposes," as in "He has virtually no options left." Language curmudgeons often grumble about distinctions being lost. But new distinctions are being made every day, it seems.
Meanwhile, my hunch about the Romneys was right - there is a connection. Sources - in this case, live human beings - at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston confirm that Governor Romney of Michigan was a first cousin five times removed of his namesake the English painter.
As for my quintessential Internet moment: well, not quite. Google was as useful as ever in helping me learn something. But without actual human librarians, connecting the Romneys would have been virtually impossible.