This is a Disgusting Article
Defending the power of words:
Awesome, literally and disgusting.
Many years ago, George Stratton and I were juniors at Vallejo High School in California. The nearby Napa River was a great place to hunt ducks and geese, and bagging a few mallards and redheads (the duck variety, mostly) was our main after-school activity.
We enjoyed the ready-made duck blinds provided by the decommissioned World War II fighting cruisers partially sunk in the mouth of the Napa River after the war.
Shotguns over our shoulders, we would hike a mile or so through the marshy fields to the riverbank.
We waded out to one particular rusting derelict and climbed the sloping upper deck up to the bow. We could hunker down with our heads just above the gunwales and watch for wildfowl flying by. We didn’t have any decoys, but we got pretty good at wing shooting.
One warm evening, we had our limit and decided to head back home when darkness approached. We made our way down to where the deck was just a foot above the water and near the shore’s edge.
George handed me his shotgun and sat on the gunwale. He jumped into the shallow water and immediately screamed so loud my hair stood on end.
His legs were stuck in something I couldn’t see in the dim light. He looked up at me with sheer terror in his eyes. I asked him if he was injured, and surprisingly, he replied, “No, but I am stuck in something, and I think it is a dead body. Get me out of here, Springer. Now!”
I lowered myself from the railing into the water a couple of yards upstream from George, hoping to avoid his dreadful plight. The upper half of his body was on shore, and he dug his fingers into the muddy bank, trying desperately to get out.
I crawled down the riverbank until I was alongside George and able to reach his belt. The first couple of tugs did not release him from whatever was holding him fast to the muddy river bottom.
I turned to George and shouted, “Look, buddy, you have to grab as much of the bank as you can and pull when I tug on your belt, ok?” He answered with an anxious “Yes,” and I told him that on the count of three to pull with all his might.
This time it worked, and at the very moment his legs broke free, George scrambled up the bank in a mad rush to get away from whatever horrible thing had held him captive.
At that exact moment, we were enveloped in an overwhelming stench. There were bits of putrid flesh and organs that George had trailed up the bank. He had jumped straight into the bloated stomach of a decomposing cow that was right under the water’s surface.
When George realized what had happened, he kicked off his boots, releasing more of the foul detritus. It was too dark to be sure, but it appeared that the contents of the dead cow contained marine life, crabs probably, that scrambled back down to the brackish water of the lower Napa River.
For most of the trek back home, George silently walked barefoot, having abandoned his fouled boots. When we arrived at his driveway, he turned to me and said, “Ken, that is the most disgusting thing that has ever happened to me.”
From that point on, whenever I hear the word “disgust,” I see and smell that decomposing cow on the banks of the Napa River. Disgust is not a word that I use lightly; it has a power and utility that harkens back to our earliest existence on Earth.
Lately, disgust is often used to describe those we disagree with politically. This trend is eroding the very power of the word. Perhaps, we should reserve certain words in our vocabulary for those occasions when they are most appropriate.
Some words fluctuate in and out of fashion. Other words are diminished by overuse and improper use. “Awesome” is an excellent example of this, considering its nearly complete devaluation in recent years.
I showed a friend a view from Droop Mountain recently, and her initial comment was “awesome.” I felt that her reaction was a bit cliché, but overall it was the best application of that particular word I had heard in quite some time.
For several years now, “awesome” has been used to comment on anything vaguely positive.
“I bought a new Subaru last week,” she said to her friend. “Awesome” was the response – but is merely purchasing a new car really awesome?
I am certainly not the word police, but some words should be employed only in extraordinary situations, those for which they were intended. Otherwise, they become weakened, like Super- man in the presence of Kryptonite.
The majesty of the night sky here in Pocahontas County may very well qualify as something awesome to behold.
That the Ukrainians may “figuratively” kick the ass of the Russians would be awesome, considering their David and Goliath lack of proportionality.
That your new puppy has finally been housebroken is not awesome. That you passed your algebra class is not awesome. We are guilty of calling things awesome that are at best ordinary and at worst unremarkable. Only pull out the awesome card when something is extraordinary.
Awesome means breathtaking, stunning and astounding. Awesome is about scale. If everything is awesome then nothing is awesome.
The word “literally” has traveled down a similar road as awesome.
The word literally has been supplanted with its antonym, figuratively. When you recently filled up your car with gasoline, you did not “literally” have a heart attack when you saw the price per gallon; you figuratively had one.
Warning: If the price of gasoline gets any higher, you may literally have a cardiac arrest. I have suggested that defibrillators be installed at every gas pump in the state. But have received no response from the West Virginia Office of Weights and Measures.
Now, back to disgust.
One might understandably think that the “gust” in disgust has to do with the Latin word for taste, the gustatory, if you will. That would make sense, but this is not the case.
Disgust comes from the French word degouter, meaning repugnance, aversion, loathing and nauseating. Disgust is one of the six basic human emotions. It is also the least studied of the six: fear, anger, joy, sadness, and surprise.
All six arose from the very earliest stages of our evolution. But, the emotion of disgust and the response triggered by that emotion made the difference between life or death, adaptation or extinction.
Imagine a time before the advent of agriculture, when our food came from hunting and gathering. Further, imagine that you lived in that time and went out in the forest to forage for something to feed you and your family.
It is late August, and nettle, ramps, and mustard have long since gone to seed; collecting is scarce. You come across a mushroom with a pretty white cap and a netlike veil on the stalk.
Mushrooms are an essential part of your diet, but this is one you have never encountered before. Your family is hungry, yet you feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety – this is the omnivore’s dilemma.
Breaking off a corner of the mushroom’s cap, you tentatively take a small bite. Immediately, you spit the bitter and vile substance out of your mouth.
The taste was disgusting, much like spoiled meat. Your sense of disgust may have saved you and your family’s lives. Another forager with fewer inhibitions would not likely live long. And one, more timid, might very well starve to death.
We humans survived because we relied on emotional responses to danger. My friend George’s reaction to the rotting bovine cadaver was a built-in feature of being a sapiens. We have a natural aversion to decomposing flesh and the living things at work inside a dead body.
Evolutionary factors aside, religion and culture have instilled an expanded sense of disgust in humans. Dietary prohibitions are part of the fabric of Islam, Judaism and Hindu faiths.
You won’t find many Muslims or Jews attending a pig roast. They may feel that eating pork is disgusting, while we in the west think that eating tarantulas is disgusting.
Many of these dietary restrictions came about due to sanitation practices, or lack of, in earlier times.
We consider many bodily functions disgusting; poop, boogers (particularly when consumed), and even vomiting. Which, ironically, is a normal reaction to disgust.
Body hair can be disgusting, but only in certain situations. In an episode of Seinfeld, Jerry expounds on how we have no problem with hair when it is still attached to the scalp. We sometimes kiss someone we care about on the head or run our fingers through a loved one’s mane.
Yet, we are repulsed when one of those hairs makes its way into our bowl of soup.
Studies of disgust have demonstrated that emotion can sometimes overrule our intellect. Subjects rejected fruit juice from a new container when experimenters dipped a sterilized cockroach into it with a pair of sterilized tweezers.
When subjects consumed a small cheese sample they found delicious; they vigorously refused a larger piece of the same cheese when told it was cultured with bacteria from a human naval.
They did so even though they knew that the starter bacteria were essentially no different from that of a cow. And the original bacteria would be almost non-existent in the finished product.
I could go on about the fascinating subject of disgust for another column or two, but you may find that genuinely disgusting.
The takeaway: Let’s save the powerful words of our beautiful language for situations that deserve them: Like stepping into the body cavity of a rotting and maggot-infested cow or peeing in the shower.
Citations are available upon request.