I had the great privilege, for several years around the recent turn of the century, of editing an online journal, The Daily Reprobate, that in its original print version was founded by Mark Twain in 1866. There is, I admit, some scholarly controversy about the details, even the veracity, of that founding legend, but such controversy in general can be safely ignored.
Some articles and snippits from The Reprobate inevitably find their way into Reckonings, if only to lend a much-needed antidote to its insufferable seriousness. Most of those posts are lodged in the category I've called “Words and Whimsey.”
Here is a brief description of The Daily Reprobate, a reasonable definition of its operative word, and a similarly felicitous description of its close sibling, curmudgeon.
The Reprobate's founder, Mark Twain, once remarked aptly, “Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.” Edward Abbey, a modern inheritor of Twain's spirit, added a companion truth, “The distrust of wit is the beginning of tyranny.” The Daily Reprobate honored that wisdom since its founding 140 years ago as a congenial companion for the intelligent and irascible reader gifted with a sense of humor and a love of language.
The word “reprobate” has a distinguished pedigree, having risen over the last 3000 years or so from its wretched beginnings when reprobates were lost souls rejected by God, wicked Sabbath-breaking sons of Belial, fallen angels, Israelites in the desert when Moses was absent. A small residue of that early meaning is preserved in the forbidding language of Calvinism, and in that of evangelical Christians intent upon their own virtue and others' salvation.
More currently, and for the journal’s guidance over its many years of publication, reprobates are shameless rascals. Often reproved as unrepentant scalawags by the Authorities (the bearers of cultural, moral and political orthodoxy) they in fact stand as bastions, fonts of discriminating disapproval. Sometimes they are wily and subtle, coyote shape-shifters resorting to irony and satire, at others straightforward firebrands. In whatever guise, they are pungent critics of deceit and abuse in the established order.
Now, take a moment's opportunity to enjoy a word lover's delight (and no doubt someone else's sheer boredom): contemplation of the relationship between reprobates and curmudgeons. Editors and authors who wrote for The Daily Reprobate were, by blood, title and persuasion, the former. But we offered a congenial home to curmudgeons, who are, in a roundabout way, the closest of kin. On a good day, we can find the two spirits commingling in our hearts.
Purely as a pedigreed word, curmudgeon is a poor relative. No one appears to know where it came from. There's been speculation about its connection to Middle English and Old French words relating to stealing and hoarding; and it is said that a correspondent of Dr. Johnson attempted to assign to it an etymology based on the fusion of coeur (heart) and méchant (malicious, spiteful).
Curmudgeon seems, vexedly, just to appear sometime in the latter half of the 16th century, a nonce-word, made up. There is little doubt that a curmudgeon is a churlish fellow of independent mind, and tolerates neither fools nor those who provoke others' suffering for their own advantage. His critics call him greedy, a muckworm and pinchgut, a lickpenny.
In truth he is none of those. Like Robin of the Hood, he steals and hoards only in the interest of equity, and knows more than most that gifts remain gifts only by passing them on. (See Lewis Hyde’s classic book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.*) The reprobate is typically more consistent; his reprobation is likely to be a matter of character. The curmudgeon's totem animals are the chameleon and the lion. He pads irregularly among soberly collected wisdom, fulmination, frothing outrage, depression, and sleepy abandonment to the muse.
Both reprobates and curmudgeons can be formidable critics. Both are shape-shifters.
It is intriguing that reprobates and curmudgeons are typically identified as men rather than women. Current explanations are unsatisfactory, and the truth belies the myth. A plausible but untested hypothesis rests upon a curious transposition of subject and object. It is not that there are fewer female than male reprobates and curmudgeons. The people whose lives and works they deflate and disarm, however, are far more often men than women, for a simple reason: men have thus far been the world's destroyers.
Edward Abbey's reflections in A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (1989) are fitting here:
“I have been called a curmudgeon, which my obsolescent dictionary defines as 'a surly, ill-mannered, bad-tempered fellow.' ...But through frequent recent usage, the term is acquiring a broader meaning, which our dictionaries have not yet caught up to. Nowadays, curmudgeon is likely to refer to anyone who hates hypocrisy, cant, sham, dogmatic ideologies, the pretenses and evasions of euphemism, and has the nerve to point out unpleasant facts and takes the trouble to impale these sins on the skewer of humor and roast them over the fires of empiric fact, common sense, and native intelligence. In this nation of bleating sheep and braying jackasses, it then becomes an honor to be labeled curmudgeon.”
The last word should be given, in justice, to an inspired taxonomist. John Winokur, in his introduction to The Portable Curmudgeon Redux (a successor to The Portable Curmudgeon, and predecessor of A Curmudgeon's Garden of Love and Return of the Portable Curmudgeon), writes:
“I remain convinced that there is no hope for the human race and that we are in the terminal stages of Life As We Know It. This book is an attempt to amuse myself and others while we're waiting for the last lug nut to fly off the last wheel of civilization.”
* I confess that I liked better the original subtitle, "Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property"