A Good Word Wrongly Used
FIRST, a flagman is a person who warns with a flag, as at a railway crossing; a person who carries or has charge of a flag. Then, a flagger is a person who lays flagstones. And, to flag is to hang loosely or limply; to droop.So I was in need of two telltale light bulbs for my electric fence charger, and I started for the store. I shortly came to an area of devastation where our Maine state highway engineers are vexing the benevolent tourists who have come this way to make us rich. As preface to the construction confusion, I read a sign that said FLAGGER AHEAD. The raccoons that are restrained by my electric barrier at my corn patch would have to wait. And I fell into line and did the same. After several million vacationists from Massachusetts came out of the dust and found the sun shining, my line began to move, and I shortly came to this FLAGGER. He didn't have a flag at all, but a signum right out of the Gallic Wars that said SLOW on one side and STOP on the other. Nor was he laying flagstones. But I saw he was drooping from the heat of the day and depended for support on the staff of his ensign. Neither was he a she, if a scrubby beard may be cited as evidence. The whole thing, of course, is an effort by our highly erudite highway engineers to aid and abet the vast movement to remove sexual discrimination from our erstwhile lovely language. Our engineers rightly presume that FLAGGER will be appreciated by our summer visitors, who have been driving along with language reform on their minds and will forget the dust of the dozers and the toxicity of the traffic and be delighted with such sophisticated nicety about laying a new pavement. If the word FLAGGER promotes felicity among the new breed of lexicographers and makes the genders happy, it is nevertheless a good word wrongly used. Let us agree that highway engineers are not really in the class of Humpty Dumpty, who knew how to make a word mean anything he wanted it to mean, and they have not the authority of the Bellman, who could say a thing three times and make it true. (Should bellmen become bellers?) Nonsense probably needs to carry a sign nowadays that says, m funnin So we shoul d meditate calmly in scholarly fashion and decide what to do about FLAGGERS and other burning problems. In the days of Roman grandeur, an army veteran who got called up for further duty in his later years was placed in a unit with a special standard and was accorded extra esteem as a vexillary. The standard under which he marched was the vexillum. In those times, armies used standards and ensigns rather than flags, although flags and horns were used for signaling. In his commentaries, J. Caesar tells how the standards were advanced on three fronts, a movement prophetic of the Battle of the Bulge in World W ar II, which took place not all that far from Caesar's innovation. Let us consider the FLAGGER with his/her vexillum. I suggest the perfectly good word, if seldom used: VEXILLOLOGIST. That's somebody who has to do with flags and standards; an authority on ensigns. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the seasonal visitor, coming up the turnpike in Maine, should encounter a sign that reads: VEXILLOLOGIST AHEAD? What would a tourist care about HE-FLAGGERS and SHE-FLAGGERS once he (she) came upon a real down-Maine vexillologist with a truly classical vexillum that reads PAUSE on the obverse and DESIST on the reverse? This would ele vate our highway engineers to new heights of erudition. It would also be a triumph for the fundamentalist lexicographers who are valiantly struggling to keep the howling wolves of antidiscrimination at bay. People amused at the vexillologist would stop worrying about salespersons, chairpeople, motorfolks, peoplepower, and FLAGGERS. And engineers. Before walkie-talkies, one-way traffic at highway construction sites was controlled by a red flag on a stick. The last vehicle in a line of traffic would carry the flag through and hand it to the flagman at the other end. Then the other line moved, and the flag went back and forth all day and gender was neglected. Except when somebody drove off absent-mindedly to Pittsburgh or Tampa with the flag. Perhaps not always absent-mindedly. My father had about a dozen red flags nailed to the wall inside his gara ge, and if anybody inquired he would explain that he was a vexillologist.