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Take My Word!

'Borked Out' as a Verb? You Be the Judge

November 20, 1987|THOMAS H. MIDDLETON

On Oct. 16, I got one of those typewritten letters that have hand-scrawled headings and personal asides.

"Dear Tom and Jean" was ball-pointed at the top of the page. It was obvious that our copy of the letter was one of many that had been sent to any number of people. As a rule, those letters are announcements of good news that a friend wants to share--anything from a new job to a new spouse.

This one was particularly good. It was from our dear friend Patience Cleveland, and it said: "I have just gotten a part on 'General Hospital,' a popular soap opera on ABC-TV. I'm playing Dorothy Sandford, Herbert Quartermaine's housekeeper."

She then gives some of what the Saturday matinee cliffhangers used to bill as "the story so far." Soap operas being what they are, the story so far was complicated, and I suspect it will go on developing more labyrinthine tangles and connections in the months and years to come.

Patience's letter then says, "I arrive with Herbert and the chauffeur on the air on October 16th."

Patience and I have been friends since we were in our 20s. We met in the Montparnasse section of Paris during the winter of 1952-53, and we've been in fairly close touch for most of the intervening years, so I was delighted to hear of her good fortune. As I said, the letter arrived in Oct. 16's mail. Naturally, I switched my TV on, flipped to "General Hospital" and waited patiently for Patience's entrance. No soap. Well, lots of soap, but no Patience.

After the show, I called Patience to find out what had gone awry--why she had not appeared.

"I suppose we were 'Borked out,' " she said.

It took me a beat or two to see what she was talking about. My wife and I had been tooling about the New England countryside during the confirmation hearings, so Judge Robert H.Bork was not quite so prominent in my mind as he might otherwise have been. Obviously, being Borked out , in this context, meant having a few episodes of "General Hospital" postponed because of the hearings that featured Bork.

I couldn't help thinking of the Kefauver Crime Commission hearings in 1950 and '51. I think they were the first of the televised governmental investigations. Sen. Estes Kefauver headed a commission whose members faced a "murderers' row" of witnesses whose shoulders seemed to support muscle-bound heads with no intervening necks. As I recall, virtually all of these unsavory characters seated themselves before the microphone and grunted: "I refuse ta ansa dat question on da grounds it might inten' ta crimidate me." They called that "takin' da fift.' "

During the period when those hearings were being televised, I overheard a boy-girl conversation in a bar on 3rd Avenue in New York. What caught my ear was the girl's voice, angry and menacing: "Donkey fawfa me, dammit!" A real attention-getter.

I tuned in as the boy said something like, "All I wanna know is what da hell wa ya doon . . . ." and I quickly realized that he was conducting his own investigation into her behavior, and "Donkey fawfa me" was her way of saying, "Don't Kefauver me."

To Kefauver obviously meant to "investigate the activities of." I wondered if Kefauver would have staying power as a verb, and I tried to think of other people who'd had their names taken up as verbs. I couldn't think of many. A few -ized names, like pasteurize and mesmerize , but the only name-verbs I can think of are boycott and lynch-- neither of them a source of much pride. I also thought of out-Herod, but I can't count that, because there's no verb Herod ; only out-Herod.

Kefauver didn't make it as a verb. Bork out was probably doomed after that one use. It has nothing to do with Bork, or anything else. It has a swing to it, though. I like the sound.

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