Paul Farmer’s Word Gymnastics

“An H of G” was short for “a hermeneutic of generosity,” which [Paul Farmer] had defined once for me in an e-mail: “I have a hermeneutic of generosity for you because I know you’re a good guy: Therefore I will interpret what you say and do in a favorable light. Seems like I’m the one who should hope for as much from you.” I have counted scores of terms like that one in his lexicon, which was also the lexicon of PIH [Partners in Health]….

One time his brother Jeff, the wrestler, sent him a card in which he misspelled the word “Haitians.” He spelled it “Hatians.” So in PIH lingo, Haitians were “Hat-eans” or simply “Hats,” and their country was “Hatland.” The French were “Fran-chayze,” their tongue “Fran-chayze language,” and Russians were “Rooskies.” A “chatterjee” was a person of East Indian descent–there were a few in PIH–who talked a lot. Farmer referred to himself as “white trash”–he had an old photo to prove it, his extended family at a picnic around a couch outdoors. The man who railed about the plight of impoverished women everywhere would in private, poking fun, employ terms like “chicks.” “I don’t care about any of that stuff” he told me once. “Just the one thing.” Impolite terms, used intramurally, were meant as philosophical rebukes to the misplaced preoccupations of those who believed in “identity politics,” in the idea that all members of an oppressed minority were equally oppressed, which all too conveniently obscured the fact that there were real differences in the “shaftedness,” also sometimes called the “degrees of hose-edness,” that people of the same race or gender suffered. “All suffering isn’t equal” was an article of the PIH faith, generated in reaction to the many times when they had tried to raise money and instead had been offered lectures about the universality of suffering, or simply lines like “The rich have problems, too.” (Farmer once taught a course at Harvard called Varieties of Human Suffering.)

“When people get around Paul, they start talking like Paul,” his old friend from medical school the writer Ethan Canin said. “He’s such a word gymnast.” There was an obvious utility in the brevity of terms like “H of G,” for a mind moving fast, and for people trying to keep up. When, for instance, “TBMI” (transnational bureaucrats managing inequality) produced clever arguments (also known as “well-formed stool”) against treating MDR [Multiple Drug Resistant TB] or AIDS, one could simply say, “Love, ID,” and be completely understood. Everyone in PIH knew that “DQ” stood for “Drama Queen,” and a DQ proposal meant an emotional appeal. (“We could use a DQ quote here, and a generic inequality-of-outcomes over here,” I once heard Farmer say to a young assistant working with him on a speech.) “Geek flowers” was the completed research that PIH-ers presented to Farmer or Kim, and “scholbutt” was short for “scholarly buttressing,” which meant that every statement of fact Farmer made in a paper had to be verified as coming from some authoritative source. (“He’s neurotic about having it all perfect,” said a medical student who did a lot of scholbutt for Farmer. “Not because he’s anal but because when you’re doing these things for the poor, amidst arguments that it’s not cost-effective to treat them, you have to be perfect or you’ll be picked apart.”)

“Lugar” was luggage. “Koutoums” meant “customs.” To commit “a seven-three” was to use seven words where three would do, and a “ninety-nine one hundred” was quitting on a nearly completed job. (“Nothing pisses me off like a ninety-nine one hundred,” Farmer would say.) PIH-ers often said “Thank you” to people who had done something for a third party, for anyone who belonged to the multitudinous group known variously as “the indigent sick,” “the shafted,” and “the poor,” the last being the term of choice in PIH because, as Farmer would say, it was the term that most Haitians used to describe themselves.

SOURCE: Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, by Tracy Kidder (Random House, 2004), pp. 215-217

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