Tuesday, May 11, 2021

'A Very Idiot, a Funge, a Golden Ass'

I’ve never been shy about using profanity in the proper setting and with the proper stimuli. Overuse mutes its impact. Even what used to be the big one in English has been enervated beyond recovery. Instead of shocking the listener, the word now suggests its user has a limited vocabulary and perhaps suffered a head injury. A friend and I used to tally the number of times the “f-word” was used in movies. The undisputed champ for a long time was Raging Bull, which scored bonus points for using the word as every known part of speech, including a preposition. Scorsese’s film now seems as gritty as a Jane Austen novel. 

We try to vary our vocabulary so as not to bore friends and ourselves. We stop hearing words repeated too often and can always use new, profanity-free synonyms for dolt, feeb, chowderhead and politician. A writer from half a millennium ago comes to our rescue. Three times in The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton uses the seventeenth-century insult funge. French in origin, of course, it’s the root of our modern English word fungi – that is, yeasts, molds and mushrooms. The coinage is Burtons’s and no one else seems to have used it, which seems ungrateful. The first OED definition is “a mushroom or fungus,” last used in the eighteenth century. In Burton’s usage it means “a person lacking intelligence or common sense; a fool.”


The OED’s first citation can be found in the introductory “Democritus Junior to the Reader,” in which Burton writes: “How would our Democritus have been affected to see a wicked caitiff, or fool, a very idiot, a funge, a golden ass, a monster of man . . .”


Second: “When as indeed, in all wise men’s judgments they are mad, empty vessels, funges, beside themselves.”


And finally, most impressively of all, Burton catalogs the prices paid by dedicated drinkers:


“They drown their wits, seethe their brains in ale, consume their fortunes, lose their time, weaken their temperatures, contract filthy diseases, rheums, dropsies, calentures, tremors, get swollen jugulars, pimpled red faces, sore eyes, &c.; heat their livers, alter their complexions, spoil their stomachs, overthrow their bodies; for drink drowns more than the sea and all the rivers that flow into it (mere funges and casks) . . .”

[Dave Lull has recovered another funge I had missed: “Be not ashamed of thy birth then, thou art a gentleman all the world over, and shalt be honoured, when as he, strip him of his fine clothes, dispossess him of his wealth, is a funge . . .”]

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