When the Hurly Burly's Done by B J Jones

Sunday, November 11, 2012
English graduate Lawrence Trent delivers a speech, but just can't get an unusual word out of his head; by B J Jones

In Speech Communication, Dr. Tyler taught us that if you are not nervous when you get up to speak, then something is wrong. I was standing in front of a clear, acrylic lectern looking at an auditorium of academics and I was not nervous. Something was wrong.

I knew I was not nervous because I had not had diarrhea. Whenever I had to speak in front of people, I first located the bathroom in the building, closed and locked the door of the stall, set my books and notes down in front of my feet then - unzip, sit, and shit.

Only seven seconds had passed while I was standing in front of the clear, acrylic lectern. During public speaking, seven seconds is more like seven minutes. The audience was wondering if I was nervous or using a dramatic pause to get their attention.

I cleared my throat which told the audience I was nervous, even though I really was not. I felt so confident that I could pick up my stack of notes and throw them behind my shoulder in a shower of academic recklessness.

This would get their attention, but then where would I go from there? I was tied to my notes like a chain smoker to a lighter. Professor Tyler taught us that the first sentence is the most important. You have to say something that is going to catch their attention. If you lose your audience in your first sentence then you will be spending the next thirty minutes talking to yourself.

"I do not have diarrhea," I said into the microphone. This caught their attention. It also caught my attention. The audience laughed and turned to each other wondering if this was intentional. Was this some clever rhetorical device of getting an audience's attention? Surely this had nothing to do with John Milton?

The seven minutes behind the podium turned into 14, which in real time was 14 seconds. This was not how I was going to get their attention. I was going to say something funny like, "John Milton was not good with the ladies." This was supposed to make everyone chuckle. Not, "I do not have diarrhea."

I was not clever enough to turn this around into something relevant about Milton. I was no Jimi Hendrix bending a mistaken chord into something musical. I was just Lawrence Trent, a graduate student invited to the Society of English Literature, to present a student paper on John Milton's love life. I was just Lawrence Trent. I was no Hendrix.

I put my hands in my pockets.

"No!" Professor Tyler shouted in my head, "Never put your hands in your pockets!"

I was staring at my notes.

"No! Look at your audience. Look to the middle. Ten seconds! Look to the right side. Ten seconds! Look to the left side. Ten seconds! Back to the middle."

I said, "Um."

"No! Never say um."

"Um. Um. Um."

"No! No! No!"

My eyes finally focused on the page in front of me. I cleared my throat again, looked at the first sentence, then looked to the center of the audience and said, "John Milton was a quidnunc." That was not right. I was supposed to say, "John Milton was not good with the ladies." I looked to the center, then to the right, then to the left, and then back to the center in ten second increments. I had everyone's attention. They were looking at me like I was an undergraduate.

I looked back down at my notes again with Professor Tyler shouting at me and said,

"John Milton was a quidnunc."

"Is that even a word?" I said. "Does that mean you don't have any money?"

Two days before my speech I had been hanging out with Frank, Richard, and Dean. We had put in a Monty Python film, but no one was watching it. Instead we were eating pizza and talking about what to do after graduate school. We were all English majors who were really good at being students and did not want that to end.

"It's not a word," Frank said with a mouth full of pizza.

"Are we all agreed?" I asked Frank and Richard.

"Yes," they said together.

"No," shouted Dean.

"Use it in a sentence then," I said.

"I just did. I said that Harriet was a quidnunc," Dean said.

"Use it in another sentence," I said.

"I don't need to."

"Then define it," Frank said getting up from the couch.

The three of us stood over Dean, who was sitting on the brown corduroy recliner. With our fists clenched, we waited for our friend to define the word he used to describe Harriet. We were not upset that he called Harriet a quid-something, she probably deserved it, but we were not convinced the word he used was real.

There was a rule when you were part of this group, which consists of the four us in my apartment not watching a Monty Python movie, and that is you do not use a big word unless you can define it. If you could not define the impressive word, you got punched. We only punch in the arm. We were only English majors.

"A quidnunc is someone who is gossipy," Dean said.

"Gossipy?" Frank said. "I don't think so."

"Ow!" Dean yelled after Frank's punch.

Three more landed on Dean's right arm like aggressive ellipses. We backed away from the corduroy recliner as Dean jumped up and yelled at us, "It is a word you bastards! I'm getting a dictionary!" Only a guy writing his thesis on Shakespeare would first grab for a dictionary instead of hitting us back.

Dean returned with a dictionary with one hand holding the reference book and the other raised in the air like a fire and brimstone preacher. Our injured friend read clearly as he looked to the page and then to us in ten second increments. Professor Tyler was in all our heads yelling, "Yes, that's how you do it."

"Quidnunc. Noun. A nosy person; a busybody. Harriet was a quidnunc. I repeat. Harriet was a quidnunc. When she overheard my conversation with Lucy in the library, and then asked me later if Lucy was pregnant, I said she was being nosy. Harriet is a quidnunc! Quidnunc!"

Finished with his professor Tyler approved oration, Dean slammed dictionary on the coffee table that separated the three of us from his triumph. Rubbing his bruised arm Dean said, "A plague on all of your houses."

Once you learn a new word you hear it everywhere. Suddenly, this word you never used before is out in the open and proudly strutting itself in books, radio, and television. The word had always been around but you never noticed it. It's like that girl you never paid attention to in high school, but you come across her in the grocery store one afternoon and now you can't get her out of her mind. She had always been pretty and been there, but you were busy chasing after some other girl.

Quidnunc is not that word for me, but I am hearing it everywhere. One hour after my lecture on John Milton's love life, I met with Frank at a coffee shop and he too had been hearing the word. He too was saying it. Frank said it while substituting for Dr. Canfield during the Principles of Linguistics.

"I said good afternoon and that I would be filling in for Dr. Canfield while he was at a conference," Frank said. "Dr. Canfield wanted me to take roll. So I did. Everyone was supposed to say 'here.' I read down the list of names, but no one was saying 'here.' They were laughing at me. I asked them what was so funny. They asked me who quidnunc was. I was going down the list, but instead of saying Dan or Susie, I was saying quidnunc, quidnunc, quidnunc!"

"Oh no," I said. It was all I could say.

"I will never teach for Dr. Canfield again."

"I will never present a paper again," I said

"It's that damn Dean and his damn word. I saw him right before I entered the classroom." Frank said.

"I saw him before my lecture."

"Did he say anything weird to you?"

"Yes, but I didn't get all of it."

"Sounded like some song lyrics."

"Probably something from Shakespeare."

"Damn Shakespeare."

We were English majors with smart phones, so we were not the only ones to rely on the internet instead of going to a library with books you can hold and flip through rather than swiping your finger across a screen. We did a search for Shakespeare quotes; famous ones, and even the unnecessary ones. We eventually found what we were looking for. It was from Macbeth. The first act and first scene: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair. Hover through the fog and filthy air."

It is what Dean said to me thirty minutes before my lecture in front of the Society of English Literature while I was trying to locate the men's restroom. It is what Dean said to Frank the same day right before he entered the classroom to substitute for Dr. Canfield. Dean was doing his thesis on the origins of the supernatural in Shakespeare's plays. Maybe he went too deeply into his research.

"Have you heard from Richard?" I asked Frank.

"No," Frank said while calling the third member of our linguistic triumvirate against Dean.

"He's not answering," Frank said.

"Do you know what he is doing today?" I asked.

"Yes! Crap! Damn it!"


"Tonight is the play!"

Richard was the director for the student run theater company. Tonight was the opening night of the company's newest performance and we had to get there before Dean did to ruin one more of our careers. The show started in less than thirty minutes. We left our coffees on the table and ran across campus towards the Sinclair Center for the Arts.

"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Or should I say in the Sinclair Center of the Arts," Dean said walking towards us inside the theater's foyer.

"Dean!" I said.

"Damn Shakespeare!" Frank said.

"Has the play started?" I asked. The foyer was empty except for the three of us.

"Pretty soon I'd say," said Dean.

"What have you done to us?" Frank said, grabbing Dean by the lapels of his black suit.

"Get your hands off me or your friend is next," Dean said freeing himself from Frank's grip.

"He's your friend too Dean," I said.

"None of you are my friends. Not anymore. You all hit me and it hurt. My word was real and I defined it correctly. I was like Julius Caesar getting stabbed by his conspirators," Dean said covering his heart with his right hand.

"Enough with the Shakespeare!" Frank said.

"No! Enough with you. With all three of you. Your academic careers are over. It's time for the real world. Real jobs. No cushy professorial jobs," Dean said backing up against the theater's doors.

"Listen Dean. We're really sorry about hitting you. You were outvoted, but you can hit us all back. I promise," I said.

"No, you never took me or my work seriously," Dean said pointing his finger at us. "And I never liked Monty Python."

"Fine, you can pick the next movie," Frank said moving closer readying to tackle Dean.

"Back off or I say it!"

"Ok Dean. Ok," I said pulling Frank away.

I don't know if it was thunder I heard or just the ventilation system kicking in to cool the building, but at that moment Dean laughed, raised his left hand in the air with fingers spread out and said, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair. Hover through the fog and filthy air."

Dean lowered his arm and opened the theater doors. The audience filed in. Richard mounted the stage, making excellent eye contact with the audience and, speaking clearly, said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I welcome you to the Sinclair Center of the Arts. Tonight our student company will perform Tennessee Williams' classic A Streetcar Named Quidnunc."


  1. i really like this, it´s not laugh out loud funny, for me, but all the better for it.the way the scenes are set,the descriptions. original! great!

    michael mccarthy