Shakespeare on Antiseptic and Anesthetic Words

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet. Romeo and Juliet“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet, act 2, sc. 2

So says Juliet, thinking that, yes, Romeo is a Montague by last name, and as such an enemy of her family. But she does not care – so much so that the lines have become a classic to assert that substance prevails (or should prevail) over form, politically correct facades, euphemisms and “spins”.

That was the case with Juliet, and maybe with some of us, but certainly it is not true of the prevailing philosophy in the post-Orwellian, post-modern lexical environment and world at large.

Most often we no longer notice. The more a phenomenon is unpleasant, obnoxious or even deadly, the more it needs words to hide, soften or disinfect its significance – words replacing the traditional and simple terms that otherwise would perfectly describe it.

At the end of April 2014, the State of Oklahoma scheduled two executions in the same day, but the first went wrong, which caused to halt and postpone the other.

Actually, it did not really “go wrong”. The condemned man, Clayton Lockett, died 40 minutes later than predicted, of a heart attack. He was injected with an untested “cocktail” of lethal drugs. Seeing him struggling violently on the gurney, the executioners halted the killing 13 minutes after the onset. Lockett was still conscious and was trying to speak.

Doctors say he suffered a ruptured vein, interrupting the flow of the lethal drugs. Attributing the subsequent inmate’s death to a heart attack adds some confusion to the issue. The drugs eventually reached the heart stopping it. Whereas a heart attack is not habitually associated with the administration of poison.

Back to words as antiseptics or, in a macabre analogy with the topic event, anesthetics. In the instance we can start with “execution”, which suggests greater distance from the act than, for example, “murder”. Murder is a word of Viking origin, meaning “secret slaughter”, traced in English at around 1300 AD. In time, the secret aspect of the killing was reduced in its significance and murder now refers to intentionally killing someone.

Interfering with the use of the proper word – murder – are nominally the Christian ethics and the associated, though not-overly-emphasized influence of the Commandments. Murdering a man when people are told that murdering is a sin creates a remarkable lexical inconsistency and (we cold say) moral dilemma. Every so often we hear of “judicial murder”, but, if anything, the added adjective further strengthens the paradox.

The solution? A clean jump over the etymological barrier and the adoption of a disinfecting, neutral word, namely “execution”.

This Latin sounding term is actually of Old French origin, meaning the performance of an act, an accomplishment. The meaning of “putting someone to death” follows the first recorded instance of the new word by about 100 years.

Associated with the a-septicity of “execution”, a note should be made about the use of “cocktail” to describe a mixture of poisons. It was a Louisiana pharmacist who, around 1795, served his liquid compound of simples in an egg cup, which in French is “coquetier”. The path from “coquetier” to cocktail is short and straight. But why use “cocktail” (of ‘drugs’, themselves more a-septic than ‘poisons’) instead of “mixture” (same three syllables) or of maybe the even shorter “blend”?

It may have to do – and I am wildly speculating – with the historically recent notion describable as the denial of death. Notion, incidentally, that perfectly blends with neo-liberal economics. By denying death, the affected human will spend his last dime to prevent it, thus making his dutiful contribution to the profit system.

In his book, “History of Death in the West” French philosopher Philippe Aries writes, “…the West requires that individuals die while being ignorant of death”. He points to the somewhat clandestine nature of funerals, the disappearance of mourning. And to the American extremes of “funeral homes”, where the deceased is embalmed, his features professionally retouched, his hands perfectly manicured, his hair elegantly coiffured. And where the almost-alive deceased receives visitors at the sound of dance music. Says Aries, “It is the first time when a society honors its dead refusing to them the status of being deceased.”

Those who followed the chronicles of the Oklahoma executions will have noticed that the “cocktail” was described as having being delivered by “doctors”. The word ‘doctor’ to indicate a medical professional dates back to the 1400 AD when it substituted the word “leech” –to discuss the implications of this substitution would lead us too far astray. Even so, the term ‘doctor’ assumes by definition the Hippocratic oath, meaning that the objective of the profession is to maintain, and not destroy, life.

But let’s return to “murder’ transformed into “execution”. Even with the best intentions, the now long history of the word “execution” has diluted its pristine euphemistic content. In the instance of the botched execution, a word has gained a new popularity, namely “protocol”.

In some transcribed interviews I counted the occurrence of the use of “protocol” versus the use of “execution”. “Protocol” prevailed over “execution” by 3 to one and 4 to one. The word derives from the Byzantine Greek “protokollon”. It refers to the practice of gluing to a manuscript a first (proto) extra page, listing the errors found in the text. (kollon = glue). The glue ensured that the corrections were not lost, to avoid the type of frustration we all experience today when losing a computer file.

The adoption of “protocol” in English, to mean “rules of etiquette”, happened at the end of the 19th century. But the use of “protocol” for “murder” is of current and fresh delivery.

All in all, in this lexical extravaganza, what used to be a murder is now a protocol, carried out not by executioners but doctors, who, in the course of it, administer not poisons, but  cocktails.

Not all protocols are followed, and cocktails delivered, to people necessarily guilty of the crime for which they are condemned. One relatively recent case is that of Cameron Willingham, who was executed in 2004, for having murdered his three young children by arson at the family home in Corsicana, Texas. In 2009, after some research, a journalist found that the evidence in the case was unconvincing and the claims of arson were doubtful. Furthermore, one proof of evidence given at the trial, was an alleged confession by Willingham to another inmate, Johnny Webb. Webb and the prosecutor in the case denied that the witness was offered a sentence reduction, in return for his testimony against Willingham. But in 2014 investigators apparently discovered a handwritten note in Webb’s files indicating that just such a deal was in play. And in fact Webb received an early release.

To end this tale of length, regrettably lugubrious, not always the changing of names had a devious or fiendish objective. For example, in 1787 the poet Robert Burns wrote a letter to a probably very charming Agnes Maclehose. He addresses the young lady with the totally invented name of  ‘Clarinda’ and extols the virtue of blending love with friendship. He says, “Such a composition (that is a cocktail of love and friendship), is like adding cream to strawberries; it not only gives the fruit a more elegant richness, but has a peculiar deliciousness of its own… You cannot imagine, Clarinda, how much store I have set by the hopes of your future friendship….”

In the play. Unbeknown to Juliet, Romeo, after sneaking into her garden, listens to her monologue in which she muses about Romeo’s last name, Montague. The Montagues are mortal enemies of her family, the Capulets.

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