I stumbled upon a funny little debate at a book lecture last Friday at Blackbird Coffee. Amy Whitaker, author of Museum Legs, visited us in Milledgeville for a quick chat about her new book. Whitaker’s collection of essays focuses on the cultural, social, and political circumstances that define museum experiences. ‘Museum legs,’ for the uninitiated, is a term for art fatigue or boredom.
Whitaker read from a particular essay called “Revenge of the Homunculus.” In it she describes the use of the word “homunculus” in an description of a painting in a museum. Whitaker argues that the word homunculus, defined as a midget, is impressive for impressiveness’ sake. Whether used to elevate the curator, the institution, or a second-rate art piece, the word slaps down 100 bucks when you only needed a quarter.
I guess I have to wonder whether we should automatically think a word we haven’t heard is pretentious. If we are becoming syllablist (anything over 3 syllables should be replaced with sleeker more modern versions). If a word as weird and onomatopoetic as homunculus need be quarantined in the academic and Freudian vocabularies.
Possibly using the word homunculus would make us all happier, if only slightly. During our long flights and conference calls, before bed, cooking burgers: think homunculus. It sings.