Rumsfeld, Circa A.D. 2034: One Who Stomachs Casualties


“Thanks to words we have been able to rise above the brutes,” said Aldous Huxley, “and thanks to words we have often sunk to the level of demons.” Determining how far we’ve sunk is a matter for history, but Bush & Co. have borne out at least some of Huxley’s dire assertion. It’s perhaps not so much that they’ve hijacked words like patriotic and security as we’ve allowed the language to get away from us: They’re our words too. For all its humor, McSweeney’s Future Dictionary of America is a serious work, underpinned by that integral idea. It’s both an indictment of our failure and an act of unbudging optimism, courtesy of an American-letters Who’s Who (Jonathan Franzen, ZZ Packer, et al.).

Judging from textual clues, this lexicon was “published” sometime around 2034. Terms like body bag (“the self-contained transportation unit favored by decorated soldiers”) have already become archaisms; still in use are Floridation, ralphnadir, and rumsfeld (“one who can stomach casualties”). Occasional slips into heavy-handedness are a forgivable flaw (the product of a shared dread), especially when the humor is mostly fast and biting (e.g., bush, “a poisonous family of shrubs, now extinct”).

A colleague of mine suggested that “the ones by Jonathans are good”; I would add to that the ones by Pauls and women whose surnames end in t. Plus there are appendices, which include a Vonnegut essay “written in 2004,” and the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The latter docs provoke meta-confusion: After 164 pages of satirical redress, words like liberty appear doubtful, the declarations too direct and rhetorically inviolable to be true. Process of authentication will be swift, or long and uncertain. (See voting, “a right, and, um, a responsibility.”)