Jewish World Review Nov 10, 2011 / 13 Mar-Cheshvan, 5772
Why America needs a proper curmudgeon
By Reg Henry
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | When Andy Rooney died at age 92 last week, almost all the obituaries said he was a curmudgeon, which was meant as a compliment. As one who takes the old-fashioned view that if it's in the newspaper it must be true, it appears to me that America's status as No. 1 in curmudgeons has to be seriously threatened.
In his artful way, Mr. Rooney set the tone for America's curmudgeonly behavior. Now that he has presumably gone to heaven and is complaining that he has to play the harp, as only a saintly curmudgeon could, the rest of us are left without a role model. We must rely on our own resources to be grumpy and out-of-sorts in an appealing way.
At first blush, it may seem that the nation has no shortage of candidates for curmudgeonhood. After all, to be a curmudgeon it is necessary to be old -- and there's a lot of that going around. As much as younger people aspire to the status, it takes years of practice to become a curmudgeon.
Curmudgeonship is also one of the rare occupations that women have not entered in any numbers. Actually, this speaks well of them. Who really wants to be, in the Webster's New World College Dictionary definition, "a surly, ill-mannered, bad-tempered person; cantankerous fellow"? Why, every old guy in town. In fact, the line starts at the door and winds around the shed.
Unfortunately, the many candidates for curmudgeon duties are too often limited in their abilities. Oh, they can be as surly and as bad-tempered as the next old guy, but many are not charming or humorous.
This is an example where the dictionary writers have not kept pace with changing meanings. Mr. Rooney was a spiky hedgehog in the chronically coiffed TV mediascape, but he was entertaining and likable, not ill-mannered.
Webster's definition does not allow for charm and a sense of humor, which are the virtues of those who hold a black belt in the curmudgeonly arts or just wear black suspenders to keep their pants up.
Without some hint of creativity or attractiveness, the word curmudgeon would be little different from the word jerk, which Mr. Webster says is "a person regarded as disagreeable, contemptible. esp. as the result of foolish or mean behavior." This country has an epidemic of jerks, but few have the wit to become well-rounded curmudgeons.
The tradition of superior irritation falters in the country where it prospered. While the word curmudgeon has been known in the English language for centuries, the type itself is proudly and distinctively American.
In Britain, they have eccentrics, who wear Sherlock Holmes hats or pith helmets and venture into deserts with a packet of sandwiches and a flask of sherry. They fend off tigers with umbrellas and are usually harmless, although tigers have been known to complain. Eccentrics seldom age gracefully into curmudgeons, however, because the British don't like speaking to strangers and setting strangers straight is what curmudgeons do.
In Australia, they have ratbags (literally, a bag full of rats) who are like jerks but drink more and commit more homicide of vowels. They are not suitable curmudgeon material because after a few beers they tend to forget what they were irritated about.
So America has the curmudgeon field to itself for the moment, which makes the current vacuum in the leadership ranks of the cranky all the more depressing. What a blow it would be to American prestige if the Chinese were to train a world-class curmudgeon who was sweet and sour.
Sorry to say, I cannot help you in this. While well-meaning readers sometimes accuse me of being a curmudgeon, this is a serious misreading of my character. I suffer from chronic happiness and contentment, which would never do. I have seen doctors about this condition, but they despair of a cure.
All I can do is suggest that a post be set up, much like poet laureate, only for the nation's leading curmudgeon. From time to time, he could wax irritated on various state occasions, bringing whining and wry complaining to a high art.
In the same way, perhaps a chair could be endowed at a leading university so that curmudgeon studies would encourage the young. Heck, endow a whole table and the resident curmudgeon could sit on it while holding forth on the follies of the day. Of course, no jerks need apply.
Mr. Rooney will be missed, but he can't be the last knight of the curmudgeonly table. Somewhere in America, a young boy is being asked what he wants to be when he grows up. Let him be comfortable in declaring: "I want to be a curmudgeon."
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