By Dave Simpson, columnist
This just in: “Gain of function.”
All the cool kids in school know what “gain of function” means.
If you don’t, well, you must not be a jock or a cheerleader. Or a member of the student council. You must eat lunch in the cafeteria with the losers, the drones, the spuds, the dweebs.
Nobody wants to be a dweeb.
Terms like gain of function take me way back to the 1970s, when the term “infrastructure” first burst on the scene. I was a callow (definition: devoid of feathers) reporter at the time, and nobody told me in college about infrastructure. But suddenly, if you didn’t work infrastructure into the conversation, the go-getters who ran things figured you weren’t too smart.
Nobody wanted to get caught asking, “What’s infrastructure?” Someone might say, “Well, Gomer, let me explain…”
At first only people in government, like city managers, knew that infrastructure was the way impressive people like them referred to lame, boring stuff like roads, bridges, curbs, gutters, sewers. We all had to start talking “infrastructure” if we were to be taken seriously. You had to get on the infrastructure bus.
(Back then, a city manager I knew had a habit of saying someone who wanted to do something “was desirous of” a curb cut, or a sewer extension, or whatever. Sounded kind of romantic. Caustic newsman Edwin Newman was doing his best at the time to deflate gassy, overblown, pretentious terms like “was desirous of.” He famously asked “when does a whopping number start to whop?” You had to love the guy. I wanted to ask that city manager, “Do you mean WANTS TO? Instead of desires?” Problem was, he made a lot more money than I did, so he had to be right.)
Turns out, gain of function is a term scientists throw around to describe taking one awful thing, like the Corona virus, and through the magic of biology and science and those boxes where you stick you hands in gloves and play with test tubes without exposing yourself to the awful stuff in the test tubes, you magically turn it into something EVEN MORE AWFUL!
Bingo! That’s the ticket! Success!
You’ve gained its ability, or function, to make something even awfuller, which is quite a day’s work, if you ask me. Talk about better living through chemistry!
Our language is a snarling, evolving beast, and some years after infrastructure became essential terminology, basic equipment if you will, along came the word “synergy,” and darned if we didn’t have to start working THAT into our conversations, too. (I tell you folks, it just never ends.)
I was working for a company that was bought by a bigger company (not fun, trust me on this), and suddenly everyone was yakking about how combining things here and there in “clusters” (don’t laugh) would “create synergy.” It was enough to make your head spin, what with all the synergizing going on, and it was a big relief when the cool kids finally moved on to greener linguistic pastures, like “dystopia,” and “gravitas.”
You had to be careful in that cool crowd. I once ordered an Old Style beer with my dinner at a company meeting, and was an object of ridicule among people with gravitas, who like fruit in their expensive beer. As they say, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression, and I never did. So now I always ask for beer with fruit in it when drinking with phonies.
You can look back on all the changes that have occurred to newspapers since we were bought by a big company, and few will be mistaken for improvements. So all that synergizing, and combining things in clusters, and all that beer with fruit in it, came pretty much to naught. And if given a choice, I’ll still have an Old Style, thanks.
So anyway, someone ought to have some answering to do about why scientists were messing around trying to make the Corona virus even more deadly, and why that should be our tax dollars at work.
Dress this up with a fancy term like “gain of function” it you like. But it just sounds evil to me.
Dave Simpson can be contacted at email@example.com