By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
It was in a more innocent time that I discovered the lexical pleasures: the day in elementary school, when a teacher challenged me to look up a word I didn’t know, and I instead wended my way to “smegma.” The word opened a scatological door that would never again be closed, and, because it was unknown to my peers, “smegma” provided a safe epithet I flung with abandon—until they caught up with me in junior high.
On a more recent day, after reading too much trumpocity and, consequently, agitated to distraction, I needed to curl into that wordly comfort. Sitting in my porch cum office, the household silent, man-eating dog snoozing at my feet, and the moon casting palm tree shadows, I paid a visit to the Oxford English Dictionary online, eager to ascend into glossarial bliss.
I was debating either troglodyte or grandiosity as a starting point, when the Word of the Day caught my eye. It was a word I didn’t know, and a wee bit weird looking—“threnody.”
From the Greek thrēnōidia, the OED reported, it meant a wailing song, a lament.
Not what I originally had in mind, although it was relatable to the pervading mood of my social circle. Yes, it was a timely word, worth embracing. I reviewed threnody’s example sentences, anticipating the onset of dictionarial delight and the joy of learning proper usage.
Alas, I did not find it. “Oy jeez” was more like it.
The twelve sentences proffered by the OED were woefully lamentable—for their collective male-centricity.
One sentence was written by two scholars, a female and a male, about The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence, well known to be male.
The love poem has turned into something else with the death of the beloved, the acute sadness in the poem seeming to move it toward the elegy or threnody.
Another was from an academic paper, authored by seven males and two females, about the 18th century poet James Thomson, who, as far as the historical record indicates, was male.
Thomson’s memorial poem to the Lord Chancellor, dedicated to William Talbot, is as much a work of political opposition as it is a threnody.
Five of the twelve sentences were written solely by males about male subjects. For example, Benedict Carton, male, was quoted from his article about South African composer Reuben T. Caluza, male.
His threnody captured the awful essence of untimely death in early-twentieth-century black societies that prized marriage and reproduction.
Despite my obsessive search, I could find neither hide nor hair of three sentences’ origins, one of which was gender neutral; the other two, about males. Frustration added to agitation, and my sphincter tightened to the point of stripping the thread.
I tried to find some solace in the two sentences the OED managed to select that commented on the talents of women. But guess who wrote them.
“Two males!” I barked at the dog. She snorphed and licked her crotch.
Malcolm Tattersall’s sentence was about composer Sofia Gubaidulina’s “String Trio” (1988).
The second movement is an eerie threnody, while the third manages almost to resolve the emotional trauma of the first.
And Nickolas Howe’s review of the Joan Didion essay collection, Where I Was From, provided the other nod to a female subject.
It is a mournful threnody, measuring to the final cost the waste and destruction caused by the edenic myths of California that have defined it throughout its existence.
All told, nine overtly male-centric sentences of twelve did not provide the comfort I sought.
Was it possible the dictionary found that “threnody” dwelt primarily in the male realm? I suspected not. And what about other OED example sentences? Were they equally biased?
I didn’t want to think about the sexist mess I might find if I pursued that question. So I closed the OED tab and wrote a book cover blurb for a friend, using “threnody.” That felt good.
“Welp, dog,” I yawned, “I am done.”
She remained silent except for a fart. It was bad. I went to bed.
Kit-Bacon Gressitt has an MFA in Creative Writing, with an emphasis in narrative nonfiction, and has taught Women’s Studies in the Cal State University system. Her narrative nonfiction manuscript, In Search of Ada, is represented by Amanda Annis at Trident Media Group, and she’s working on a fiction project. An erstwhile political columnist, K-B’s political fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction have been published or are forthcoming in Publishers Weekly, Ducts magazine, Not My President: the Anthology of Dissent, The Missing Slate, Trivia: Feminist Voices, Ms. Magazine blog, San Diego Poetry Annual, New Moon Girl Media, San Diego Uptown News, San Diego Gay and Lesbian News, American University’s iVory Towerz, and others, and she’s a founding editor of Writers Resist.
Painting, “Youth Mourning,” by Sir George Clausen, 1916.